Fresno’s Amazon warehouse marks debut, showcasing robots, jobs and 200M items shipped

See inside Amazon’s fulfillment center in Fresno

Get a tour of the 855,000 square-foot facility where robots and people get packages to customers fast.
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Get a tour of the 855,000 square-foot facility where robots and people get packages to customers fast.

Online retail giant Amazon opened its Fresno order-filling warehouse nearly 14 months ago.

But the company known for speed in getting all kinds of products into the hands of its customers is just now getting around to celebrating the grand opening of the center.

It’s not that Amazon forgot to have a ceremony last summer, when the place at Orange and Central avenues at the south edge of Fresno was still relatively new.

It was still ramping up operations and ironing out kinks in the workflow. Plus it’s standard procedure to not celebrate and show off until everything is running the way it should, said Shevaun Brown, public relations manager for the Fresno site.

With about 2,500 employees, a couple thousand robots and 10 miles of automated conveyor belts with computerized scanners in its 855,000-square-foot warehouse, there’s plenty for general manager Ankush Pole to show off.

Pole and other Amazon officials led The Bee on a tour of the warehouse Tuesday, and hosted local leaders and others for a ceremony on Wednesday – the first time the center’s been opened to reporters and photographers since opening in June 2018.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand praised Amazon on Wednesday for helping put Fresno on the corporate business map by choosing the city for its newest robotic fulfillment center — representing an investment of about $200 million.

“For so many years, businesses drove by, businesses flew by, we were passed up until we finally got smart and built an industrial park … and developed financial policies to incentivize businesses to come to Fresno,” Brand said. He also credited Amazon and its 2,500 jobs with helping to reduce unemployment to “the lowest in the city of Fresno’s history.”

When Amazon embarked on hiring warehouse associates locally, the jobs were advertised with a starting pay of about $12 per hour. Since that time, Amazon has increased its minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Fresno City Councilman Miguel Arias, whose District 3 includes the Amazon site, was less enthusiastic than Brand. “This is a $30 million investment by Fresno taxpayers; that’s the size of the subsidy that Fresno taxpayers have provided Amazon to be able to locate here,” Arias said. “It’s a great economic boost for the region … but there was no requirement for Amazon to hire residents from the city, much less from the nearby neighborhoods.”

Arias noted freight traffic to and from Amazon and the nearby Ulta Beauty distribution center, which also opened last year, “generates thousands of diesel truck trips on a monthly basis” in the southern fringe of the city. “We welcome the additional jobs and the higher wages,” he said, “But we have to make sure that people who live next door to operations like this don’t take on the full burden of the pollution impact and the traffic impact.”

Figures from the state Employment Development Department show by the end of 2018, the warehousing/storage industry employed more than 3,700 workers in Fresno County, compared to fewer than 1,500 a year earlier before Amazon and Ulta opened.

The inner workings

The volume of products and orders shipped from the Fresno warehouse can vary widely because of seasonal peaks and valleys in shopping – busy for the holidays and the recent Amazon Prime promotion, for example, and slower other times.

But over the past 14 months, Amazon estimates it has shipped out an average of about 500,000 individual product items daily to customers from the Fresno location. That’s about 200 million pieces total.

Pole said handling that much product is a complicated process, but he offers a manageable way to visualize it. “Think of it as a U-shaped building – The stuff comes in one side and goes out the other side, and we’re standing in the middle of that U,” he said.

From the time a product enters the building at one end of the U to the time it leaves in a package at the other end for shipping, it goes through a range of steps that include humans, computerized tracking and robots.

Most of the inventory coming in on trucks arrives in large yellow totes, which are routed to one of many sorting stations where workers scan individual items and place them in stacked, portable shelves of bins.

The scanning allows computers to track specifically which bin contains a particular item. When the bins are filled, a robot – a squat, smart machine – lifts the entire rack of bins and ferries it to a designated storage area.

“Once the item is stowed, it’s available for an order,” Pole said. In other downstream processes, robots bring the product bins to “pickers,” employees who pluck items from the shelf to assemble customer orders into another tote.

The number of the robots used to move bins around rivals the number of human employees. Pole said they range from 2,000 to 3,000.

Guided by computerized brains that follow electronic trails embedded in the concrete floor, the robots move from one place to another while avoiding collisions with other machines in a manner resembling a choreographed dance.

“There are a lot of smart people who basically are behind designing these systems,” Pole said. “We are the operators. We make sure things happen here in the field.”

Once a worker has assembled an order, the merchandise-laden tote moves through a conveyor system to packaging, where workers put the items into shipping boxes with protective bubble wrap, tape up the box and affix a tracking label.

Each box then moves on conveyor belts to a machine that scans the label and slaps on a shipping label with each customer’s address. Yet another conveyor system scans the labels and automatically sorts packages into different lanes depending on the delivery carrier that will be shipping the product to the customer.

“The magic of the technology is that it makes the process safer for the associates,” Pole said.

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.