Amazon is enlisting its cutting-edge Lab126 hardware group, best known for creating its Kindle e-readers, Fire tablets and Echo smart speakers, to help build out its own COVID-19 testing capabilities.
In a series of job posts, the Seattle tech giant is seeking new Lab126 mechanical design engineers to “investigate and introduce new technology and methodology to enhance quality and efficiency of COVID-19 testing,” among other responsibilities. The job posts explain that Lab126 has been tasked with helping to keep Amazon’s fulfillment centers safe for employees.
Lab126 is based in Silicon Valley, but the posts indicate these jobs are located in Hebron, Ky., where Amazon is separately hiring lab assistants, scientists and others for its COVID-19 testing program.
The location, near Cincinnati, is notable due to its proximity to a large Amazon Prime Air hub slated to open next year. Amazon may ultimately fly test samples in cargo jets to the Kentucky lab, Bloomberg News reported last week.
It’s part of a larger effort by Amazon to expand its COVID-19 testing capabilities, tapping employees from a variety of roles across the company, including research scientists, program managers, procurement specialists and software engineers.
The company has come under fire from employees and legislators as cases of COVID-19 have rippled through its fulfillment network, with some calling on Amazon to temporarily shut down facilities where cases are reported. Amazon has declined to disclose the total number of COVID-19 cases confirmed at its facilities.
A worker at a hard-hit Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania told the New York Times that the company’s efforts were “just way too late.”
Brian Olsavsky, the company’s chief financial officer, told investors in an April 30 conference call that Amazon will spend an estimated $300 million on testing initiatives in the current quarter, part of an expected $4 billion in spending by the company on COVID-19 related initiatives during the quarter.
As part of the initiatives, Amazon has launched pilot programs to test employees in its fulfillment centers.
“A next step might be regular testing of all employees, including those showing no symptoms,” the company said a blog post. “Regular testing on a global scale across all industries would both help keep people safe and help get the economy back up and running. But, for this to work, we as a society would need vastly more testing capacity than is currently available. Unfortunately, today we live in a world of scarcity where COVID-19 testing is heavily rationed.”
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has made it clear that the company’s COVID-19 response will be a major new initiative.
“Providing for customers and protecting employees as this crisis continues for more months is going to take skill, humility, invention, and money. If you’re a shareowner in Amazon, you may want to take a seat, because we’re not thinking small,” Bezos said in Amazon’s earnings release.
An analyst on the earnings call asked Olsavsky if the testing capability would potentially take Amazon “into a new business path over time,” potentially expanding testing beyond its own employees. Olsavsky responded, “Our main concern is getting testing in the hands of our employees and then potentially as we have excess capacity, perhaps we can help in other areas.”