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Robots to move merchandise in Amazon’s Ruskin warehouse

RUSKIN — The exterior walls are up and Amazon is starting to hire certain start-up positions for its massive, 1-million-square-foot warehouse.

The company won’t say much about its future fulfillment center, but some permit documents filed with Hillsborough County suggest it may be one the most high-tech warehouses in the area. Hundreds of “autonomous mobile robots” will scurry around the warehouse floor and deliver entire shelves to stationary human pickers, the documents say.

Hillsborough County got one of its biggest economic development wins in years in October when Amazon agreed to build an online merchandise warehouse in the South Shore Corporate Park, just north of State Road 674 in Ruskin. Lakeland scored its own win, too, by landing a similar Amazon warehouse on County Line Road.

An Amazon spokeswoman wouldn’t reveal much about its timeline for opening in Ruskin. However, Doug Dieck, president of the Southeast region for Ryan Cos., which developed the South Shore Corporate Park, said he believes the company hopes to be open for this year’s holiday season. His hunch is that the building will be finished by September, which would leave time to stock the center, Dieck said.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan also said he’s heard the company is shooting for this year’s holidays.

A drive by the new center last week showed its exterior walls are standing. At 1 million square feet, it’s just a bit smaller than International Plaza mall in Tampa. And at 1,782 feet long, according to permit documents, it’s about a third of a mile long.

Eventually, Amazon is expected to employ more than 1,000 people full-time in Ruskin, but so far it’s only begun hiring for select managerial jobs in equipment maintenance and repair, IT and human resources, company spokeswoman Nina Lindsey said.

A check of the company’s careers page last week showed 10 positions available in Ruskin, including a few positions in staffing and recruiting.

The company will begin hiring for more general positions a few months before opening, Lindsey said. Bearing that out, a second Amazon Web site devoted to its fulfillment centers, at www.amazonfulfillmentcareers.com, shows no openings for Ruskin yet.

The company generally pays in the $11.25-an-hour range for low-skilled picking and sorting jobs, according to its job postings for other warehouses around the country. It also signed an incentive deal with Florida and Hillsborough County that will require Amazon to create at least 375 higher-paying jobs at average annual pay of $47,581.

A fire protection study filed during the permitting process last year said the Ruskin plant will use robotics extensively. For example, robots will scoot around the middle section of the warehouse floor and pick up entire shelving units, where customers’ merchandise is stored. The robots will deliver the shelving units to human “pickers” who are stationed on the perimeter of the storage area, the documents say.

Amazon’s spokeswoman wouldn’t say whether it will use robots in Ruskin, but she did confirm Amazon deployed nearly 1,400 such robots in three undisclosed warehouses last year. Amazon bought the company that makes the robots, Kiva Systems of Massachusetts, in 2012.

They’re not exactly R2-D2 from “Star Wars,” standing about shin-high and resembling today’s robot vacuum cleaners only larger.

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Twitter: @msasso

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