Amazon, the internet retail company, is so ubiquitous, so popular and so seemingly all-powerful, that most of those who regularly buy things from it don’t pause to ask how it works. It’s simply accepted, in other words, that once you’ve chosen an item, proceeded to the online checkout, and clicked ‘buy’, that item will magically materialise on your doorstep, or at another place of your choosing, a few days later. One of the curious things about our brave new digital world is that we’ve become so accustomed to the way in which the Internet makes our lives easier that we take it for granted. But what really happens when you hit ‘Buy’ on Amazon?
In a nearby warehouse or ‘Amazon Fulfilment Centre’, your decision to buy generates activity. Algorithms, constantly tweaked and improved to maximise efficiency, calculate in moments where your desired item is in the warehouse and dispatches a human worker to fetch it. If you go to one of these vast facilities, which are often more than 500,000 square feet in size, what will strike you is the unusual way in which everything is categorised: similar items are rarely grouped together but sit, seemingly out of place, among items with which they have nothing in common. This is deliberate: ‘similar’ is not ‘same’; retrieving a cable of a specific length from a mass of cables of slightly varying lengths is far more difficult and time-consuming than retrieving that cable from the midst of completely different items.
The worker who fetches the item scans it to confirm it is the right one. The item will then be scanned again and again as it moves through the fulfilment centre; this allows the warehouse managers to know where any item is at any given time. The workers are aided by Kiva robots, which can sort packages and lift heavy pallets among other things. Amazon bought Kiva for $775 million in 2012 and started to use the robots in 2014. By 2016, it was reported that they cut operating expenses by almost 20 per cent simply by improving warehouse efficiency.
The products, having been fetched, are placed in yellow boxes on conveyor belts, not unlike those found at airports, which take the items to the packing and shipping area. There, products are wrapped. In 2017, it was reported that, using machine learning, Amazon had improved its shipment process, packaging some items together and using bubble-wrap and envelopes for smaller items. These wrapped items are then divided by robots among different chutes, which correspond to the courier that will transport the item.
Already, Amazon has turned logistics into an art form, employing advanced robots and a policy of constant improvement to create what is one of the most efficient supply chains in the world. But Amazon and its fulfilment centres are nowhere close to maximising their efficiency: in the foreseeable future, increasingly sophisticated robots will play a larger role in warehouse management and the fetching of items, while drone technology will be used in lieu of couriers and shipping. Amazon Prime Air is in development, and the delays have more to do with legal issues than the technology itself. But if Amazon can use drones to reduce the $20 billion it currently spends in shipping costs, and if drones mean quicker deliveries and therefore more sales, then Amazon will have a lot more money to spend on improving the purchase-to-delivery process.
But more than that, Amazon’s world-class logistics offers us a glimpse of the future. As artificial intelligence grows, and automation and robotics improves, all businesses will be able to improve efficiency exponentially, dramatically shortening the time it takes between the consumer’s decision to buy and their receipt of the item. It is feasible that in the next few years, it will be faster to buy an item online than to go to a store to buy it, even in major cities where a shopping district is rarely more than a fifteen-minute journey away.
Needless to say, this has huge implications for the consumer, who now has more time on their hands for work or leisure. The case of Amazon is just a small example of how advancements in technology can benefit not only individual businesses and the wider economy, but all of us.
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