ROMEOVILLE – Cardboard boxes speed down a conveyor at a rate of 550 feet per minute, sliding off as if being pushed by invisible hands onto lateral lines leading to different truck docks – one for UPS, one for FedEx, others to Amazon distribution centers.
It was modern retail in motion at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Romeoville.
“It knows what every box is,” General Manager Victor Davis said, supporting the impression that the ship-sort line operated as if it had a mind of its own as he pointed to a spot where each box passed.
“You see that big red scanner,” he said. “It’s scanning the shipping labels so it knows where to shove the boxes off to get them to the right location.”
Purple blocks called shoes did the shoving, moving so fast from the edge of the line that only after watching closely was it apparent that the boxes weren’t sliding off the conveyor on their own.
This is part of the route that rugs, charcoal grills, twin-size mattresses and even something called a Squirrelinator take to customers’ homes.
This is the way more and more of America is shopping.
Tens of thousands of packaged customer orders move through the Romeoville facility daily, Davis said.
Amazon’s local growth
The 767,000-square-foot fulfillment center operated by about 1,000 employees is part of Amazon’s distribution network that has been growing in recent years in Will County.
Not too far away in Aurora, two more fulfillment centers totalling 1.4 million square feet are in the works and will employ another 1,000 workers.
Amazon celebrates all these facilities with a grand opening ceremony on Thursday, although the Romeoville fulfillment center has been in business since September.
Gov. Bruce Rauner is scheduled to attend.
The Romeoville facility, which was renovated from a former Montgomery Ward’s warehouse, was designed by Jeff Russell, a graduate from Romeoville High School.
“I’m probably the only one in Amazon who has opened a facility in his hometown,” said Russell, a regional operations engineering manager for the company.
Sorting and shipping
The Romeoville fulfillment center was designed for larger merchandise, which come in different shapes and sizes. It has a custom box area for packaging the assorted products that come through the facility.
It’s somewhat different from the newest Joliet fulfillment center, which also opened last fall and handles smaller merchandise lighter than 30 pounds. Most of that merchandise is clothing, which doesn’t lend itself very well to robotic handling, Russell said.
“Apparel goes all over the floor,” Russell said, demonstrating a shopper trying to carry several shirts in slippery plastic packaging under an arm while walking through a store. “You get all your shirts and things falling on the ground. Imagine that with a robot.”
The Monee facility will be heavily robotic and, like the Joliet facility, handle merchandise under 30 pounds but no apparel.
Joliet General Manager Tom Krut also was at the Romeoville fulfillment center for the tour provided by Amazon.
The Joliet fulfillment center consists of four floors with lower shelving because so much of the merchandise is hand-picked, Krut said. Still, he said, “It’s not much different of a set-up. It’s very similar.”
The volume of packages moving through the Joliet fulfillment center is even greater than in Romeoville.
But nearly all the employees at the local fulfillment centers are touching the merchandise at some point before sending it down the automated lines in their route to the customer, the general manager said.
Much of employee training focuses on keeping that in mind, Davis said. Feedback from customers is shared. Stories about a wedding dress delivered on time are a reminder of what it’s all about, he said.
“We really want the employees to obsess over the customer,” Davis said.