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Flesh-and-blood Employees, Robots Coexist At Troutdale's Amazon Distribution Center

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Amazon employees box and pack orders at the Fulfillment Center in Troutdale.

As science-fiction books and movies have predicted for decades, robots may one day take over the world — starting with the workplace. But at Troutdale's vast new Amazon Fulfillment Center, digital automation is nothing without the human touch.

The "stower" — an employee who scans and inspects items for accuracy and potential damage before distribution — exemplifies the facility's give and take between humans and machines.

"Why not use a robotic platform?" asks Mike Moore, general manager of the fulfillment center at 1250 N.W. Swigert Way. "We haven't found a solution (that works better). You need that tactile aspect. For this role, a human being does remarkably better than a robot."

At another section of the sprawling production floor, on the facility's SLAM (ship, label, apply and manifest) line, an employee quickly intervenes to clear up a box jam on the conveyor.

"Sometimes it happens," Moore noted. "That's why we have all these problem solvers."

Moore and his colleagues led media representatives and local and regional leaders on a tour of the massive facility on Friday afternoon, Aug. 2. Since the 855,000 square-foot center opened in August 2018 north of downtown Troutdale, it has employed more than 2,000 workers who pick, pack and ship online customer orders for products from books to baby products.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A package is scanned and ready to be shipped at the Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center.

As one might expect from the distribution behemoth, the breadth and complexity of the center's infrastructure and mechanization is truly a sight to behold.

On the cavernous second floor, a battalion of tall, robotic pods driven by what look like giant Roomba vacuum cleaners buzz and whir around an intricate, 10-mile network of conveyor lines. Robots travel throughout the production floor to pick up shelves of products, delivering them to employees at various work stations where they are packed and shipped to customers.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - An Amazon picker waits for a robot to bring a rack of items to his station so he can then fulfill an order.

Amazon's robotics system cuts product processing times from what could take several hours to minutes, allowing for greater efficiencies all around.

"Amazon is a people-driven business," Moore said. "But we complement that with technology to deliver our customer promise in a (more efficient) manner. There's always going to be the need for the human element, because this is a human business."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - A package is sorted and ready to be shipped at the Amazon Robotics Fulfillment Center.

After the tour, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-District 25, shared her awe and admiration for the operation.

"It's incredible. I can't believe they process over 1 million orders a day," she said, making note of a "whole lot of Taylor Swift albums" she witnessed moving down the line. "I'm really, really impressed."

Built for approximately $178.4 million on 74 acres that once accommodated a Reynolds Aluminum plant, the fulfillment center began operating in September 2018 and gradually built up to full speed last fall.

In exchange for building inside Troutdale's enterprise zone, the city awarded Amazon a five-year tax break worth approximately $9.6 million.

Seeing the facility up and running, Troutdale City Councilor Glenn White, who earlier toured another Amazon fulfillment center in Kent, Wash., expressed confidence in the city's decision to choose Amazon over other options presented for the industrial property.

"There was a push to get a federal post office here that would have provided a one-time (property tax) payment of $6 million," he said. "Thank goodness that didn't go through. We proved that by waiting, (we got) something better. This is East County's largest employer."

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE  - Mike Moore, general manager of Amazon's robotics fulfillment center in Troutdale, talks about the one year anniversary of the center.

Emphasizing that the facility will "provide ongoing employment and tax benefits," Councilor David Ripma noted the advantages of having a large industrial district separate from residential and shopping areas.

"Troutdale's industrial district is well located," he said.

Reynolds School District board member Valerie Tewksbury, who before the tour accepted a $15,000 donation check from Amazon to the Reynolds Education Foundation, praised the corporation's commitment to community.

"We are excited to partner with Amazon," she said, noting the donation "helps teachers implement programs (the district) otherwise couldn't afford. We are excited to have you here in our neighborhood."

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