LAKELAND, Fla. - Amazon recently did the unthinkable. It invited us – what with our unblinking cameras and endless questions – for a peek inside its newest logistical lair.
It’s taken more than two years to gain access. Unlocking the mystery of where that Amazon shipment originates has remained one our longest standing requests -- unanswered or rejected countless times. But finally, we were allowed in.
And it was absolutely worth the wait.
The company's new Lakeland Fulfillment Center unfolds over a footprint of 59 football fields, the company said. And the edge of the warehouse that faces the road stretches a third of a mile -- we clocked it in the car.
Beyond its gargantuan size, the facility is an technical marvel.
In addition to 800 employees, scores of robots scurry about. Man and machine work in tandem flinging boxes from supplier to you.
"We like to think of it as a symphony between our robots and our great associates," said Amazon’s Nina Lindsey.
"The ‘drive units’ are actually bringing items where they are stored to associates,” she said. “So that an associate can pick customer orders and get them ready to ship out."
The floor is covered in postage-stamp-sized QR codes. Electronic eyes in the robots’ bellies read the codes for guidance.
“It’s like a chessboard,” Lindsey explained.
The largest robot is a bright yellow pallet singer that is said to weight as much as an African elephant. It sits perched above the floor and swings front side to side with a fluid precision that is captivating to watch.
"We affectionately call it ‘Robo stow,’" Lindsey said.
Amazon declined to say exactly how many packages it handles per day. Manager Chris Monnot assured us it’s an impressive number.
"We process thousands and thousands of packages," he said.
Even more astounding that the volume is the selection. Monnot said the towering shelves that line the warehouse house one million unique items.
"You can't fathom the amount of inventory that we have in the building," he said.
Monnot then leans in and reiterates the number.
“One. Million,” he said.
Does the typical customer realize that?
“Probably not,” he answered.
We expected to see boxing zipping at NASCAR pace. But we were wrong. Monnot explained that the line is regulated – and designed to even out the sudden spurts and slow spots.
"The important thing is just the flow," he said. "In order to have one million unique items in this facility you have to be able to do that."
Amazon has faced criticism for its workplace practices. Recent coverage in The New York Times raised allegations that the company vehemently disputes.
Perhaps that is why Amazon opened its locked gates for us.
When we spoke with employee Diane Ortiz, she dismissed the allegations. She said the fulfillment center has positive vibe and is a great place to work.
"I love it," she said.
Ortiz said the company’s critics and customers alike would likely learn a lot by visiting her ‘office.’
"I think they'd be in awe,” she said. “Surprised. Extremely surprised."