The technology at Amazon continues to evolve as the company’s newest site in Tracy hits its stride.
TCY5 at 6250 Promotory Parkway, which opened 2 years ago, is the third logistics center in Tracy for the online retailer, with yet another to come on Grant Line Road. A media tour of the sorting center, dubbed “Delivering the Future,” on Nov. 10 offered a glimpse of the system that the company uses to sort the packages before they head out to area customers.
The 1-million-square-foot building is one of three Amazon sorting centers on the West Coast, with the others in Seattle and San Diego. Inside is a constant stream of activity, starting with the rows of truck bays where packages come in from any of a number of Amazon fulfillment centers, where orders are processed and prepared, to the platforms where the packages are loaded into vans that will head out to their destinations: the customers awaiting delivery of their online orders.
“Anything you may order in the Northern California region moves through us or one of our sister sites,” said TCY5 Site Leader Zac Lim. “Anything and everything comes through this site.”
The tour started on the mezzanine level of the building. It’s in the center of the facility, and it’s where conveyers move the packages from the intake area to a series of stations. On the north side of the mezzanine floor are 20 stations where workers scan the QR codes on the packages. That information goes right to one of the site’s 850 Pegasus robots, a flatbed transport vehicle where the worker sets the package.
The Pegasus robot then drives to the package’s next destination using the information from the package label and information on the site layout of TCY5.
While associates scan and sort the larger, bulkier boxes, a similar process on the south side of the mezzanine level is designed to handle smaller, lighter packages in a much quicker fashion. This is where Amazon employs a row of 20 Robin robots: mechanical articulating arms that scan and lift packages, up to 400 per-hour, and set them on the Pegasus robots.
All of this happens in a fenced-off area, where the robots do their work while associates observe to make sure it all runs smoothly. Lim explained that robots do the tedious, repetitive work that would eventually take a physical toll on the human workers.
“You can see that with our associates, that we’re reducing repetitive motions, reducing heavy lifts, and reducing long walk times to make our most effective roles even more efficient,” he said.
And while humans and robots each have their own work areas, the company is mindful of the potential hazards of human-robot interaction. Any time an associate does have to enter an area where the robots are working that person will put on a safety vest that can alert the robots whenever that person is nearby.
“When you’re close they slow down, and when you’re right next to them they stop completely, deactivated, to make sure there’s absolutely no risk,” Lim said.
The use of robots is a growing aspect of Amazon’s fulfillment, sorting and distribution system. The company reports that over the past 10 years it has deployed more than 520,000 robotic units over 300 facilities worldwide, representing more than 1 million jobs for its workers.
Two years ago the company established its Mechatronics and Robotics Apprenticeship, and 1,400 graduates so far have completed the 12-week program along with on-the-job training. Those who complete the program can generally expect a pay raise of about 40%.
After the associate and Robins robot scans packages, the Pegasus robots then travel along their route, as determined by their onboard computers, to deliver packages to a series of chutes, which lead back to the main floor where workers palletize packages based on their final destinations.
This is another area where the robots take over what would be a physically demanding job of moving pallets from the sorting area to the delivery vans. Another fleet of 150 robots, the Hercules models, are another flatbed-style cart, this one designed to lift up to 1,000 pounds and carry pallets to the vans, which associates load for the final trip to the customers.
That final trip to the customers features the latest, most modern additions to Amazon’s distribution and delivery system,. On display at the end of the tour was one of the new delivery vans, custom-made for Amazon by Rivian, which specializes in all-electric vehicles.
“It’s all part of Amazon’s climate pledge, which is to be a net-zero carbon operation by 2040. This is a big milestone in making that goal a reality,” said Natalie Banke, Amazon’s Northern California Workplace Public Relations Manager.
The vans arrived at Amazon’s Richmond site last week and are set to be deployed around Northern California, gradually replacing the gas-fueled vans used today.
“Our goal is to have 100,000 of these vans on the road by 2030. We have over 1,000 right now in 100 cities.”
Banke explained that an overnight charge will give each van a range of 150 miles, “and that’s plenty to get them there and back for their routes for the day.”
As with the technology in the TCY5 center, the vans are designed with safety in mind and electronic systems that interface with the road and the driver. The dashboard includes displays from cameras that provide a 360-degree view of the van’s surroundings and give warnings of road hazards and potential collisions.
The van also responds to driver activity in the interest of safety and security. When it is put in park the side door slides open, and the doors close when the driver puts the vehicle in drive. When the driver gets out and walks away from the van the doors automatically close and lock.
“All of our drivers are going through training and so far the feedback has been … they’re excited to drive these rather than the old ones.”
Amazon is also preparing for airborne deliveries as well. Banke showed off a scale model of a delivery drone that can carry small packages. The local drone fleet is based in Lockeford now and will be deployed by the end of the year, Banke said.
She explained that they are autonomous, and using mapping apps and information about the delivery destination the drones will fly hundreds of feet in the air and descend when they reach their destination.
“You don’t even notice them until they descend,” Banke said, adding that just like robots in the sorting center the drones are designed to identify potential risks in their proximity. “They on their own can sense when there is an object in the way, and will be able to maneuver on their own out of the way, and if they sense danger they know how to fly back home, (to their) home base in Lockeford.”
She added that the drones are Federal Aviation Administration certified, making them subject to the same regulations and responsibilities as passenger aircraft. Though they are autonomous, Amazon still has associates monitoring their activity.
She added that the delivery drones will go only to customers who have signed up for that specific type of delivery service.
“Someone has to come to your house and survey the land make sure is all safe and set up for drone delivery.”
• Contact Bob Brownne at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 209-830-4227.