Amazon robots, workers speed stuff to you

A look behind the scenes at MDW7, the gigantic Amazon robotic fulfillment center in Monee.

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Darnell Gilton, 23, is among about 5,000 employees working at MDW7, the Amazon Robotic Fulfillment Center in Monee.

Darnell Gilton, 23, picks an item from a pod and places it in a tote once every 6.8 seconds, on average. Gilton is among about 5,000 employees working at MDW7, the Amazon Robotic Fulfillment Center in Monee.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Darnell Gilton is “picking,” a process that takes six or seven seconds.

“When the pod pulls up to me, I look at the screen,” explains Gilton. “The screen tells me what bin to pick the product from. I go to the bin, I grab the product, I bring it to the hand scanner here, I scan the product, the light tells me what tote to put the product in. Just like that.”

The pod is a yellow tower about 7 feet high, each of four sides presenting a grid of merchandise tucked securely into bins, driven by an orange robot tucked underneath. The screen shows an item — in this case, a Real Techniques Miracle Complexion Sponge + Case located in cubby 2H. Gilton grabs it, scans it, tosses it into a yellow bin beyond a flashing green button, hitting the button to show he’s finished the task. Then he does it again, with a different product. About 350 times an hour.

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Gilton works at MDW7, the Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center in Monee, one of nine in Illinois, with two more on the way. In all, there are 50 similar facilities in the United States, with another 100 worldwide, part of a staggering network of warehouses, distribution hubs, conveyers, chutes, trucks, pickers, drivers, supervisors and, of course, an omnipresent internet presence, which working together last year sold $280 billion worth of products and delivered 3.5 billion packages worldwide.

A worker walks across a catwalk at the Amazon MDW7 fulfillment center in Monee. The facility contains about six miles of conveyors.

A worker on a catwalk at the Amazon MDW7 fulfillment center in Monee. The facility contains about six miles of conveyors.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The advent of COVID-19 has made Amazon, already the most dominant online retailer in the world, more important than ever, as fear of going out in public has encouraged people to try e-commerce. Even as the president slashes at the Postal Service, trying to cut into Amazon’s business, it grows so fast the company, now worth $2 trillion, is hiring 5,500 new workers in Illinois, adding to the 23,000 already working in the state.

Between that, and Amazon Prime Day last week — Prime Days actually, Tuesday and Wednesday, when the world’s largest e-retailer offered all sorts of sales for its 112 million U.S. members, more than a third of the entire population of the country, who get free shipping for a monthly Prime fee of about $12 — a visit seemed in order.

MDW7 — “MDW” refers to the code for Midway; Amazon fulfillment centers are named for the nearest airport — is enormous, nearly a million square feet, and from the parking lot, that size immediately presents reportorial challenges.


An aerial view of MDW7, the Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center in Monee.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

“I don’t have a wide enough lens,” Sun-Times photographer Ashlee Rezin Garcia said as we walked up to the building, its inner entrance emblazoned, “work hard. have fun. make history.” Later, a Sun-Times drone was dispatched to capture the place from the air.

Since Amazon is controversial, from its effect upon small business to conditions for workers at places like MDW7 — past Prime Days have seen protests about their treatment — I want to say upfront that I talked to a half-dozen of the 5,000 employees there, working 10-hour, four-day-a-week shifts. This newspaper has a fine tradition of investigative exposes, but this isn’t one of them. I spent an hour gee-whizzing through the place.

As trucks are on their way from an Amazon warehouse in Joliet, bearing, oh, cases of Quaker Chewy Granola bars and pallets of Evian water, Amazon’s computer already is assigning individual items to particular orders.

The arriving merchandise is placed into pods; squat orange robots scoot under them and move them around in a smooth, silent ballet — that’s why this is a robotics fulfillment center — that makes you wonder how many of those 5,000 workers will be on the job five years from now.

Squat orange robots tuck themselves under the yellow product pods and convey them to the pickers at MDW7 in Monee.

Squat orange robots tuck themselves under the yellow product pods and convey them to the pickers at MDW7 in Monee. Amazon bought the company making the robots, Kiva Solutions, in 2012.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The mezzanine is an enormous floor of criss-crossing conveyors — about six miles worth in this one building — with crates holding merchandise racing along at 10 feet per second. Noise fills the air, a constant roar, like a cascading waterfall.

“Photo eyes and different cameras track the trays,” says Mike Stone, director of workplace health and safety for customer the fulfillment network, worldwide, his voice amplified through a small loudspeaker.

Stone calls the process “an intricate dance.”

“Scanners know where every single one of these things is,” he says. “Everything is tracked through bar codes on each one of the different containers.”

Early in the pandemic, Amazon was criticized for not being candid about employee COVID infections and deaths. Last week, Amazon announced that nearly 20,000 of its 1.3 million U.S. workers have tested positive for the disease. The company has spent $4 billion, Stone said, trying to keep its employees and customers safe, staggering shifts, for instance, so employees coming to work don’t bunch up at the entrance.

“Since March we have made a tremendous amount of changes to our buildings, layouts, processes, policies, to make sure we can operate safely during these times,” Stone said. “Lots of our building were designed for people working within 6 feet of each other, which was a no-no. We had to redesign work stations, building barriers.”

The employees I spoke with didn’t sugarcoat what they do.

“Tough but good,” said Aaron Young, 38, who lives on the South Side of Chicago and joined Amazon last April. “It’s a warehouse job, so it’s not easy work. You have to lift, and some of the items are heavy. But nothing unmanageable.”

Gilton, 23, has worked here since November.

“You work four days a week, and then you have three days off,” says Gilton, who lives in Country Club Hills. “As long as you take the time to recuperate during your three days, you’ll be fine.”

On my way out, I run into Kelvin Madera, 21, of Crown Point, Indiana, arriving at his first day of work at Amazon, along with Julisa Martinez Madera, his 23-year-old sister.

Why do they want to work here?

“A chance to grow and learn new things,” says Martinez Madera. “There’s a lot of opportunity here.”

“A great opportunity,” says her brother. “The pay is good. Who wouldn’t want to work here?”

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