Published: 05:00, 15 November 2021
| Updated: 09:11, 18 November 2021
It was not too long ago we were foretold of a reality on the horizon where robots and humans would work harmoniously together to improve services and solve problems.
Inside one of Amazon's biggest, newest warehouses that future already appears to be here.
Inside Amazon's huge new Dartford warehouse
The sprawling £205m complex has a footprint of approximately 547,000 sq ft – roughly the size of six-and-a-half football pitches – and is based on the decommissioned site of the former Littlebrook Power Station, next to the Dartford Crossing.
It officially opened in late August and has already helped prepare and ship millions of items to homes across the UK and Europe.
But what is life really like behind the giant doors? As reported elsewhere, are overworked staff unable to take breaks by a global giant set on destroying the high street?
Keeping in tradition with its American counterparts, the online behemoth's biggest branch in Kent has somewhat paradoxically been dubbed LCY3 after the nearest airport – London City.
A mass local recruitment drive has seen it offer 1,300 people permanent positions with up to 600 seasonal posts being actively recruited for.
In a KentOnline exclusive we obtained a first look inside the expansive new premises and met some of its employees – both human and automated – to see what working at the biggest company in the world is really like.
Priyanka Bernard, the site leader at Amazon Dartford, starts by explaining the vital role robotics and AI plays in supporting rather than replacing human work.
She said: "Robotics work very closely with our people on site. The robots are really there to automate and make things easy for our people.
"Previously we had people walking around to pick our products and right now the robots will bring the items to the people to pick the products.
The former IT professional, who lives in Wilmington, adds: "Overall, I think the best thing about is we get new technologies through people who have done engineering and they bring in that new technology to build better work environments for us."
As part of a whistlestop tour, Priyanka walks through the elaborate stowing, picking, packing and delivery process that has earned Amazon its speedy reputation for next day delivery.
Upon entry products get taken straight off trailers by forklifts or manually into pallets, she explains.
From there the process takes what appears to be a counter-intuitive step as large groups of the same product get separated and placed into yellow tiered stack bins full of unrelated items.
Each is tracked by a computer as warehouse operatives – known as "associates" in Amazon lingo – then quickly pick and pack the same product but at greater speed.
In a move Priyanka describes as "organised mess", robots then work in sync with humans to ferry these "pods" to different stow stations based on product size, navigating a chessboard of QR barcodes on the floor.
The result is a sort of choreographed dance which sees shuttling droids yield way to one another depending on who has more pressing business.
Managers oversee the entire process from nearby screens and ensure quality control before items are sent to the pack station, where the computer system recommends the exact box and even tape size to warehouse workers to pack ready for shipment.
Since opening little over two-and-a-half months ago the warehouse has been slowly ramping up its output ahead of the key festive trading period.
At this point you'd expect to see frantic flows of workers rushing around trying to get yoga mats in boxes or the latest kids' toy packed and prepped but instead the floor has an aura of calm about it.
I'm even more surprised to learn the sprawling warehouse is already operating at "full capacity".
"We've hired lots of new people from not only Dartford but many other towns around which is really good to see," says Priyanka. "We've also given people a lot of new opportunities, apprenticeships, and new roles the new Amazons site has opened up.
"So that has gone really well and people have really appreciated that.
But Amazon is not without its critics.
The online retailer has come under fire in the past over its impact on local businesses and allegations of poor pay and worker treatment.
However, the company firmly refutes this and say around 60% of physical products sold on Amazon are from third-party sellers with 60% of small businesses on the site exporting to customers all over the world.
As for worker conditions, Priyanka dismissed these claims and encouraged those with concerns to come and see the warehouse for themselves.
The former IT professional joined Amazon after taking a tour of the facilities and believes the company offers great opportunities for people to learn and develop in a supportive environment.
"We really believe in rewarding people who are doing really great and also people who need to learn," she said.
"We also have dedicated instructors who have worked in different sites and learnt the process and make it very easy for our associates."
The site manager points to the firm's competitive wages, comprehensive benefits package, and Amazon offering to pre-pay 95% of tuition fees for recognised courses.
She added: "Employees come from any background, any demography, it really doesn't matter, as long as they have the will to learn new things and operate."
One such person to take up that opportunity is former chef Gustavo Vernier, from Dartford.
The dad-of-three is originally from Brazil and worked in the national airforce before coming to the UK to work in the catering industry.
He has now been working at the Dartford site for three months and says he already enjoys it far more than any of his previous jobs.
"I believe when you work hard you can achieve your goals," the 45-year-old said.
"Most companies don't recognise hard work, sometimes all they are looking for is the little things you did wrong."
"I love to learn. For me learning is one of the qualities of life. With more information and more knowledge you can make your life easier."
Asked whether the work ever becomes tedious or monotonous he simply smiles and shakes his head.
"Here you feel part of a team and not just a number," he added. "Like you are part of a family."
"For me the difference is the language. In the kitchen things can get aggressive but in here it is really friendly."
Like many of his colleagues, Gustavo performs a 10-hour shift, four days a week with breaks scheduled every three hours.
And at Amazon he says he has a far better work-life balance than before.
"Previously we had people walking around to pick our products and right now the robots will bring the items..."
But not everyone was overjoyed with the mega shed's opening and at the time of its approval residents outlined concerns over added traffic near the Dartford Crossing which is frequently gridlocked with traffic.
However, Amazon outlined mitigation including working with Fastrack to create its own designated bus route to ferry workers to the site.
It has also unveiled one of the largest solar panel installations on the roof of the sprawling complex as part of its commitment to be net-zero carbon across its business by 2040.
The Dartford site is powered entirely by electricity generated from the panels and the online retailer says it will be feeding excess energy created back into the national grid.