Have a look inside the 1-million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center in Ruskin

This is a look inside the Amazon fulfillment center in Ruskin. JUSTINE GRIFFIN | TIMES
This is a look inside the Amazon fulfillment center in Ruskin. JUSTINE GRIFFIN | TIMES
Published March 30, 2016

RUSKIN — There's enough steel inside to build the Eiffel Tower — twice. If all the conveyor belts inside were laid out in a straight line, they would stretch farther than 10 miles. Hundreds of robots — including self driving vehicles — scoot around inside.

Amazon opened the doors to its 1.1-million-square-foot fulfillment center in Ruskin Wednesday to celebrate the warehouse's grand opening more than a year and a half after its launch.

Reporters from media groups around the region, local government officials and Florida Gov. Rick Scott toured the facility, which is one of two fulfillment centers in the state. The other is in Lakeland.

Since the Ruskin Amazon facility opened on Sept. 17, 2014, it has more than doubled its workforce, from 1,000 full-time employees to more than 2,500, said Chris Monnot, the general manager. A renovation of the center, which is the size equivalent of more than 28 football fields, was completed in October. That project added new levels of work space, more conveyors and workstations, and made it larger in terms of cubic square footage than the Lakeland facility.

Lakeland employs 800 people. Amazon employs about 4,000 in the state.

"There are not a lot of places in Florida that add 2,500-plus jobs in a year and a half," said Scott.

The Ruskin center ships smaller items like electronics, kitchen appliances, books, DVDs and toys. It ships items all over the world, but mostly to destinations in the southeastern U.S., Monnot said.

The center is equipped with hundreds of robots, including self-driving cars that transport merchandise from one end of the warehouse to another.

The facility also has labeling machines and other robots that bring items directly to employees so they don't have to carry or haul heavy loads.

Florida's two centers are the most technologically advanced in the Amazon fleet of 11, Monnot said.

Unlike the Lakeland warehouse, Ruskin isn't equipped with "Robo-Stow," a 6-ton robotic arm that picks up and stacks pallets of merchandise. Amazon officials say it's the largest robot in the world and is about the size of an adult African elephant. It's used in Lakeland to lift and store heavier or odd-sized items like a kayak or TV.

Small businesses can enroll to be a part of the "fulfillment by Amazon" program, where businesses store their inventory at Amazon and workers pack and ship orders for that business from the Ruskin facility.

Monnot said there are several small businesses in the region that participate in the program but declined to say who they were.

Otherwise the fulfillment centers in Ruskin and Lakeland look almost exactly the same. Phrases like "Dive deep" and "have a backbone" are plastered across the walls of break rooms. "Work hard. Have fun. Make history" is etched over the main exit of the building. Employees pass through metal detectors on their way in and out of work. Cell phones aren't allowed on the warehouse floor.

Amazon workers, who officials say make more money than a typical retail worker, mostly work full time. Shifts are 10 hours, four days a week. During peak season before the winter holidays, the Ruskin facility had nearly 4,000 part-time and full-time workers, Monnot said.

Amazon will pre-pay 95 percent of tuition for employees who take college courses, regardless of whether the field is relevant to Amazon jobs. On Wednesday the company announced it would build an on-site classroom where employees could take online courses from local community colleges. Amazon plans to work with several local colleges in the area, though the plans haven't been finished, Monnot said.

Monnot, who was once the general manager of the Lakeland fulfillment center, was promoted when Brian Owens, the former Ruskin general manager, was promoted to be regional director. Owens oversees the fulfillment centers in Florida and some in Texas.

Contact Justine Griffin at Follow @SunBizGriffin on Twitter.