Johnston's Amazon opens to the press and the RI governor

Posted 7/9/24

The megalithic building is crawling with little blue robots. The creatures roam, coasting smoothly behind red warning tape strung between steel girders and heavy machinery.

Human overseers watch …

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Johnston's Amazon opens to the press and the RI governor


The megalithic building is crawling with little blue robots. The creatures roam, coasting smoothly behind red warning tape strung between steel girders and heavy machinery.

Human overseers watch their progress, learning their jobs (the humans and the machines) in preparation for an opening expected in just a few (to six) months.

Floors two through five of Amazon’s mega-facility in Johnston are each identical and packed with hundreds of robots that will eventually work alongside more than 1,500 human workers.

The flat Amazon blue-hued floor-hugging robots roll around using an electric eye to read QR codes off the floor, coasting beneath stacks of pallets that will soon be packed with packages, destined for a northeastern American home near you.

They’re essentially training for the opening, which is expected, according to Amazon officials, before the start of this year’s holiday season (pressed repeatedly, Amazon spokespeople would not be more specific).

Jonathan Greeley, Amazon’s Economic Development Manager for New England, addressed a group assembled to tour the Johnston facility Tuesday morning.

“Some fun facts about this building,” Greeley told the group, which included Rhode Island Governor Dan McKee. “It’s big — 3.8 million square feet, that is 66 football fields (just under). So, when you think about the amount of stuff we had to move around … 1.5 million (cubic yards) of earth were moved to create the site … 7,000 cubic yards of concrete were poured for this building, more than the Empire State Building; 21,000 sprinkler heads; 1,700 fire alarm devices … This building is fully climate-controlled, as are all our fulfillment centers across the country. So there’s 110 HVAC units on the roof to keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”

For now, the building’s packed with practice boxes and a skeleton crew. It’s close to operational, but still not quite ready.

The company expects to hire around 1,500 job-seekers to work at the facility, according to Amazon Public Relations Manager Steve Kelly.

The company promised Johnston that they would host a job fair in town. They’ve started hiring managers, but hourly employees won’t be hired until around 30 days before the facility officially opens, Kelly said. No dates have yet been set for the job fairs.

“We’ve come a long way,” said Greeley. “Construction started in November of 2021 … To date we’ve created more than 2,200 construction jobs — that’s really really important.”

The little blue robots are called Amazon Robotic Drives, according to Kelly. All together, the building has thousands.

The robots are designed to cut down on repeated tasks; used in conjunction with long shiny metal conveyer belts and huge black spiral package slides.

Around 500 workers were inside the facility Tuesday, working toward opening day (a date for the ribbon-cutting has also yet to be set).

“This is probably one of the first things to come out of the pipeline,” McKee said, adding that Johnston’s Amazon facility was one of his “first projects” as governor. He said he worked with former Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena to “put these pieces together.”

“He provided a great deal of leadership to do that on the local level, and we were providing the leadership on the state level,” McKee said.

Although the facility's construction faced multiple delays, mostly blamed on worldwide supply chain slowdowns, the end product will be a major asset to the Ocean State, McKee argued.

“It takes a while to plant the seeds and see them grow,” said the governor.

Polisena’s son, the host town’s current mayor, was not invited to Tuesday’s tour. He and other town officials did tour the building last year. And he hopes to tour again soon, before it opens for business.

“I was told this tour is at the Governor’s request and town officials cannot attend,” Polisena said Monday. “We are hopeful to go at a date in the near future so all of our local elected officials, including the council members, can learn about the facility in our town and continue to maintain an excellent relationship with Amazon for decades to come.”

The facility is unique for Rhode Island, but one of many Amazon-run robot-packed buildings across the country.

“This building’s a 3.8 million square foot Amazon robotics sortable fulfillment center,” Greeley said. “What does that mean? That means that when this thing’s open, more than 1,500 people will be partnering with best in class robotics and fulfillment technology to receive, stow, pick and ship inventory throughout the northeast. So this is going to be one of the hubs of our northeast, east coast fulfillment network.”

Customers shopping at home can start the machines rolling in Johnston with the touch of a button.

“So when you essentially press ‘Buy Now’ … stuff starts moving in this building and will make its way to your front door through various means (like the Amazon logistics network or third parties like USPS),” Greeley explained. “Everything in this building is what you call ‘sortable’ … Think books, think electronics, think housewares, think toys.” Relatively small items.

The building is also a “logistics facility,” Greeley explained, complete with more than 200 “trailer spaces throughout the exterior of the building and more than 1,800 employee parking spaces.”

“We want to make sure that we can meet the demand, especially during the holiday seasons,” he added.

“What happens when we open?” Greeley asked. “Buildings like this launch in phases …  A big part of why we site buildings is human talent. That’s a big part of why we’re here. We think we can have the talent in Rhode Island to do what we need to do to deliver for our customers across the region.”


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