American and Texas flags hang from the rafters at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

Gov. Greg Abbott watched raptly as the bright yellow, six-ton Robo-Stow lifted a loaded pallet off an arriving Kiva floor robot like a person might lift a light hors d’oeuvre off the platter of a passing waiter. The Robo-Stow’s giant arm swiftly unhinged at the elbow and elevated the pallet upwards to the top of a multi-story shelving system. The pallet settled into place in a matter of seconds, and the robotic arm instantly pivoted, then folded like a pocket knife and descended, ready for the next one.

The yellow armed robot "Robo-Stow" at the Amazon Fulfillment Center.  Photo by Scott Ball.
The yellow armed robot “Robo-Stow” at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“You could put a glass of water on top of that pallet and the Robo-Stow wouldn’t spill a single drop of water,” Mike Ross, vice president of operations for Amazon, told Gov. Abbott and his official entourage that included Cong. Lamar Smith, state Sen. Donna Campbell and an understandably proud Schertz Mayor Michael Carpenter.

When Abbott asked Ross if a worker was operating the Robo-Stow, Ross replied that it didn’t need one, and neither did the orange Kiva Systems 3900 robots hardly visible beneath the loaded pallets they ushered through the plant.

Welcome to the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Schertz, 1.25 million-plus sq. ft. of hi-tech warehouse space, a vast and cavernous expanse of polished concrete and multi-story shelving. 

How big is it?

“If you drive 35 mph, it takes 35 seconds just to drive the length of the building front,” an employee remarked, large enough to house almost 60 football fields.

Walkway at the Amazon Fulfillment Center.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Walkway at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Here and there, Abbott and his entourage taking the guided tour encountered real workers, some of the 500 “associates” employed at Amazon’s newest regional distribution center in Texas. More are hired seasonally as online shopping balloons, such as the Christmas season. Amazon pays the workers hourly wages, plus health care benefits upon employment and offers a 401-K retirement savings plan. Click here to explore employment opportunities.

The fulfillment center is a processing facility, speeding delivery of tens of thousands of different products to waiting customers. Somewhere in the massive space, I surmised, was the book I had just ordered.

Women stood ready at work stations at the end of conveyor belts delivering individual products for packing and shipping. As an item approached, a worker efficiently shaped a flattened cardboard box, inserted the retail item, stuffed the empty box space with an exact length of cushioning paper, neatly secured the exterior flaps with exact lengths of tape, and deposited the box on to another conveyor belt. The final conveyor belt in the process carried the boxes to the open cargo hold of a waiting container or trailer where men carried the packages into the hold, fitting each one in like a puzzle piece.

An Amazon worker tapes a box before delivery at the Amazon Fulfillment Center.  Photo by Scott Ball.
An Amazon worker tapes a box before delivery at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Brightly colored motivational messages dominate the center’s walls: “Work Hard. Have Fun. Make History.” T-shirts worn by associates offer more branding.

There are three such fulfillment centers in Texas now, employing 3,000 people and representing $400 million in investment by Amazon. There are more than 50 nationwide, Ross said. He predicted the company’s Prime Now same-day delivery service not yet available in San Antonio but underway in Austin, will prove to be the next big game-changer in online delivery service.

“You can order an item and get it in an hour or two,” Ross said. “Right now the selection is limited, but ultimately it will be whatever the customer wants.

“This facility is going to expand over time and the building will ship more and more volume over time,” Ross said. “Right now we have 500 associates, and I see that number going up and up in the coming years. This already is one of the best performing buildings in the country, thanks to our hard-working associates and the robotics.”

An Amazon worker organizes packages in a shipping container at the Amazon Fulfillment Center.  Photo by Scott Ball.
An Amazon worker organizes packages in a shipping container at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The $150 million Amazon facility in the Verde Enterprise Business Park has been open since September 2013, but few non-associates have been inside. Friday was a grand opening of sorts and an introduction of the fulfillment center to elected officials and the media. Ross said the Schertz center is one of 10 “eighth generation” Amazon fulfillment centers, which means, he said, that the plant “has the latest Amazon proprietary software, the most advanced engineering design and robotics.”

Abbott and other officials addressed a gathering in the Amazon facility’s community room before touring the plant. The event honored U.S. military veterans, three of whom were on hand to accept gifts from Amazon of new Kindle readers the company is giving out to local vets.

Abbott used the occasion to tout Texas as a low-tax, pro-business state focused on creating jobs and welcoming more companies to the state as Cong. Lamar Smith, state Sen. Donna Campbell, and Schertz Mayor Michael Carpenter looked on.

“As you people drive up and down I-35 we know you need more fulfillment of roads,” he quipped. “In less than 45 days, I’m going to be signing some legislation that will add $4 billion more a year to build roads in the state of Texas to help those traveling to get to where they need to go a whole lot faster.

“We will also ensure tax cuts of more than $4 billion so you can take that money and plow it right back into growing your business, hiring more people right here as well as across the state of Texas, continuing to power the state of Texas’ economic engine,” he said.

Governor Greg Abbott addresses the recent opening at the Amazon Fulfillment Center.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Governor Greg Abbott addresses the recent opening at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

The Texas Legislature is still debating the budget and tax cuts, but Abbott sounded confident in his predictions.

Cong. Smith said he had visited with Amazon’s Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos at the company’s Washington state headquarters last year.

“To think that Amazon in 20 years has gone from one customer to 150 million customers is just amazing,” Smith said.

Schertz has realized it own extraordinary growth, and of late has earned a reputation for becoming, perhaps, the fiercest competitor along the I-35 corridor in Central and South Texas for expanding businesses, using a combination of tax incentives, plentiful undeveloped land and other business-friendly inducements.

Mayor Carpenter told the audience that his predecessors as far back as 1958, “met with the German farmers living here then and convinced them to become part of the city of Schertz. It was important because the city of San Antonio was growing fast.”

Schertz mayor Michael Carpenter addresses the audience Governor Greg Abott receives a tour at the Amazon Fulfillment Center.  Photo by Scott Ball.
Schertz mayor Michael Carpenter addresses the audience Governor Greg Abbott receives a tour at the Amazon Fulfillment Center. Photo by Scott Ball.

Standing inside the Amazon facility, Carpenter added, “The vision was started in 1958, began to take shape in 1978, and now is being manifested here today.”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.