By BRADEN LAMMERS
JEFFERSONVILLE — Just as quickly as it was constructed and launched operations, the Amazon.com Inc. distribution center is set for an expansion.
The 1-million-square-foot Amazon.com facility off Ind. 62 in the River Ridge Commerce Center is set to fill out the rest of its capacity early this summer. Amazon shipped its first item out of the center in mid-October, about six months after the facility broke ground and has been operating in about two-thirds of the building.
With the expansion, the facility that primarily ships apparel, watches and jewelry, shoes and clothing will install a mirror image of what is already functioning on the east side of the warehouse and open up the same operation on the west side.
“We’re growing the operation in 2013, which is pretty exciting because we’re going to bring even more jobs,” said Greg Walsh, general manager of the Jeffersonville fulfillment center. “We started off with about 900 full-time associates, we’re over 1,100 now, and we’ll continue on that track of growth.”
Walsh could not provide an exact number of how many employees will be added to the center and only said it will be “hundreds more.”
While the Jeffersonville Amazon location has a similar footprint to other such centers operated by the company, inside it’s one of the company’s largest in the world.
“This is the largest fulfillment center in North America,” Walsh said. “That’s because the module here — where we stow and pick products — is four levels.”
He said most of the centers only have three levels, including the main floor of the building.
Within the Jeffersonville distribution center, millions of items are stocked on shelves in what Amazon calls its “pick area” at the far end of the building. A series of loading docks line the back wall in the center on the main floor. Near the back of the center, on the east side, there is a designated area to receive and sort packages that are arriving. Adjacent to the receiving area is an outgoing shipping dock.
Once the expansion is completed, to the far west side of the building will be another four-story “pick area.”
Amazon Employee Rica Lewis was pulling items that had been ordered in one of the east-end pick areas. She used a handheld scanner that directs her to the item by lane number. She then scans the box where the product is stored and then scans the item itself to make sure it is correct one. Once the product is “picked,” the handheld scanner automatically directs the employee to the next closest item that has been ordered in the storage area.
“[It’s] really an amazing technology setup that we have here,” Walsh said.
The technology maximizes efficiencies for the employees who — when all of the items have been collected — will drop the products on part of the four miles of conveyor belts inside the center to go on to the packaging area.
Through wireless networks and the computers tracking each order — even if items are pulled by different employees — once they reach the packaging area they are lumped together.
“We have our technology that allows us to marry those two items together so that we can pack it in a single order,” Walsh said.
Even the boxes and tape at Amazon are dictated by the computer to ensure employees are using the minimal amount of packaging needed for the item or items being shipped.
“[It’s] optimized so it’s the box that best fits the product, so you’re using less resources, you’re using less tape, so ultimately its more sustainable,” said Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Cheeseman.
Once the items are boxed, it’s back on the conveyor belts to the shipping area.
Through its technological efficiencies, Walsh said Amazon companywide was able to handle more than 300 orders a second, a total of more than 26.5 million orders, on its peak day Nov. 26, which was Cyber Monday.
“We are one of the fulfillment centers that supported that and we continue to grow, so we need to support that growth through expansion of this site,” Walsh said. “Obviously, being in Southern Indiana we’re at a great nexus point in the center of the country to service national support for the customer. We were one of the last of the fulfillment centers to ship for the Christmas holiday.”
He said the company tracked an item shipped in the early hours of Dec. 23 and arrived at its destination mid-afternoon on Dec. 24.
WHAT SETS IT APART
The warehouse is not the only thing on-site at Amazon’s fulfillment center.
In the facility, a mock pick and pack area is set up to train workers, and there’s also a safety “school.”
Tucked back in the corner of the building, a host of stylists and photographers are shooting pictures on-site of the new products coming into the warehouse.
Photo Manager Bibek Banseth explained that 10 to 15 photographers, along with a host of stylists, set up each item on a scale figure, then photograph them on a tabletop and then upload them to the website.
For all the efficiencies the company touts, Walsh said “we’re very focused on continuous improvement.”
Part of that improvement extends to employee involvement, holding meetings and daily walk-throughs to gage ways in which the facility can improve.
“We talk about, ‘What are the issues the associates are facing, what can we help [with], what are things we can resolve immediately? There’s really a passion to make sure we’re hearing what the associates see as opportunities and what we can do to fix them,” Walsh said.
He added along with the technology, the people are what sets the company apart.
“The folks here in Jeffersonville and the surrounding area are phenomenal,” Walsh said.
The center is operating almost 24 hours-a-day with two shifts of employees, working 10 hour shifts, four days-a-week. The center is operational seven days-a-week.
Starting pay at the Jeffersonville site for warehouse associates is between $11 to $13 an hour, according to an email from Cheeseman. Amazon also offers workers company stock awards and health benefits.
She added that median pay inside the fulfillment center is 30 percent higher than that of people who work in traditional retail stores, which does not include stock benefits. And over the past five years, those benefits have added an average of 9 percent to base pay annually.
Today, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence will tour the facility. He’ll also make stops in Southern Indiana at Silver Creek High School and the east-end bridge construction site. Look for coverage in the weekend News and Tribune and at newsandtribune.com.