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Inside Amazon's massive new fulfillment center in Romulus

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
The Amazon fulfillment center in Romulus

Zachery Thiel pulls a package from a yellow plastic tub, scans it into the system with a beep, and pops it into an empty slot on a tall shelf to his right. When the shelf has no more empty slots, he hits a button and the shelf whirs away into the depths of the warehouse, while another slides in behind it, ready to be filled.

It takes only a second or two, and Thiel repeats it over and over during the course of his 10-hour shift at Amazon’s new fulfillment center in Romulus. 

Pull beep pop whir.

Pull beep pop whir.

Pull beep pop.

“As soon as it hits that bin, our customers can order that product,” says Shawn Westlund, the general manager of the facility.

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Zachery Thiel waves to the visitors on a tour of Amazon's Romulus fulfillment center.

Westlund is leading a tour for its grand opening ceremony. Tagging along is the mayor of Romulus, a U.S. Senator, two members of Congress and a handful of reporters.

Thiel smiles and waves with his black-gloved hand to the new visitors.

“Is this being timed, or no?” asks U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who represents this area.

“This is the pace he works at,” says Westlund. “He’s one of our best stowers.”

“We’re probably disrupting him,” says U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell.

“No, he’s okay,” Westlund says. “Zach’s good.”

The distribution center, near the Detroit airport, first ramped up last July. The whole facility occupies more than 855,000 square feet, about the size of 14 football fields, according to the company. It processes orders for Amazon customers across the globe.

“We have military shipments that ship out of this facility that we ship overseas to our military servicemen and women,” says Westlund.

At any given time, thousands of products are being processed from this one location, Westlund says. During peak times, that jumps to tens of thousands of products.

The process begins at the stowing station where Thiel works. Products that arrive at the fulfillment center first have to be put into the system by workers like Thiel. Once they’re loaded up onto the tall, yellow shelves and whirred into the warehouse, they can be called up by workers at a different station to process a customer order.

Workers don’t go to the shelves. The shelves come to them. Hundreds of short, orange robots lift the shelves from underneath and cart them where they need to go, exactly when they need to go there. Imagine a Rumba vacuum, but bigger and square, with a circle on top that can lift and cart off the shelves.

The robots do their work behind a chain link fence inside the distribution center. Once products are stowed and then later picked for shipment, the rest of the facility is a dizzying network of conveyer lines. Amazon says if you laid out all the conveyers at the Romulus facility end-to-end, they would stretch more than 10 miles.

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
"I'm just amazed by what I see," says Shawn Westlund, the general manager of Amazon's Romulus fulfillment center

Westlund says sometimes he stands on one of the elevated walkways just to watch the whole process unfold.

“I’m just amazed by what I see, because it’s so amazing the technology we have in these facilities,” he says.

Amazon says 1,500 people currently work at the Romulus fulfillment center, and the company has 2,500 workers total across 16 different locations in Michigan.

The elected officials who showed up for the grand opening ceremony on Friday say the company continues to grow in the state.

“We want to be here when it’s 5,000,” said U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow. “We want to help you just keep on growing and growing and growing. Because that’s what we’re all about in Michigan.”

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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