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Automation at Amazon

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We have posted a few times about how miserable it can be to work in an Amazon fulfillment center. (See for example here.) We have also had a few posts on Kiva robots — both before and after Amazon bought the company in 2012. Kiva produces automation systems for fulfillment centers. These are essentially robots that bring shelves to pickers who select what is needed to complete customer orders. At the time Amazon bought them, Kiva’s clients were firms like Crate & Barrel that while significant catalog/web retailers had far less variety than Amazon. Indeed, one of our posts on Kiva was basically asking when the robot hordes were coming to a fulfillment center near you.

According to the Wall Street Journal, those hordes have now arrived (Amazon Robots Get Ready for Christmas, Nov 19). Back in May, CEO Jeff Bezos claimed that they would increase their number of robots from 1,400 to 10,000 over the year. What difference does this change make?

At a 1.2-million-square-foot warehouse in Tracy, Calif., about 60 miles east of San Francisco, Amazon this summer replaced four floors of fixed shelving with the robots, the people said.

Now, “pickers” at the facility stand in one place and wait for robots to bring four-foot-by-six-foot shelving units to them, sparing them what amounted to as much as 20 miles a day of walking through the warehouse. Employees at some robot-equipped warehouses are expected to pick and scan at least 300 items an hour, compared with 100 under the old system, current and former workers said.

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What would you expect to be the most popular post on this blog? Something on lean operations? One of those posts on managing queues? Nope. The most popular post by a wide margin (more than 13,000 page views than the next most popular post) is something Gad wrote in 2011 on how airline ticket prices vary by day of week. The conclusion of that analysis was that Tuesdays are the best day to buy. The story behind this rests on how airlines manage their pricing. While airline revenue management systems are largely automated closing out fare classes on flights as fill up, they do require some human intervention. That intervention tends to happen early in the week as managers evaluate how well leisure fares sold over the weekend.

But is that still true? According to the Wall Street Journal, no (The Best Day to Buy Airline Tickets, Oct 22).

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A new deep dive into airline fares suggests Sunday is the best day to find low fares. This is a departure from the conventional wisdom of recent years, when Tuesday was considered the best bet.

Airlines Reporting Corp., which processes tickets for travel agencies and handles about half of all tickets sold, tallied up ticket sales. Over a 19-month period ending in July, 130 million domestic and international round-trip tickets worth $94 billion showed the lowest average price, of $432, was on Sunday. At $439, Saturday’s average is also lower than Tuesday, which averages $497.

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Is the express lane in the grocery store always the fastest lane?

That’s a great question and its the subject of a “Dear Mona” column over on FiveThirtyEight (Dear Mona, Which Is The Fastest Check-Out Lane At The Grocery Store?, Oct 16). Mona attacks this question by heading into the queuing theory weeds.

I couldn’t find much research on express lanes specifically, but one paper from Amsterdam found the reduction in wait times for express-lane customers didn’t offset the overall increase in wait times for everyone. Maybe life would be easier if the supermarket didn’t have an express lane — or, better yet, if it got rid of multiple lines altogether and had all customers join a single infinitely sprawling line where there were no winners and losers. That might sound nightmarish, but the math actually suggests it would be anything but.

That math comes from queuing theory, a subject of study that’s been around ever since Danish mathematician Agner Krarup Erlang discovered a method for managing telephone traffic in 1909. To answer your question, I’ve had to take a crash course in (more modern) queuing theory, including examining formulae that calculate how average wait times at the grocery store vary depending on the type of line you join.

I should state upfront Mona on the whole acquits herself quite well on this. But there are a couple of points worth mentioning. First, there in fact supermarkets that run with a single queue, like this Hannaford’s in West Lebanon, NH.

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As you can see, that singe serpentine queue ends up chewing up a lot of space at the front of the store. That’s a lot of real estate to give up when you only have two people in line. As we have written about before, that is only one of the complications of having a single queue in a grocery setting.

But let’s suppose for the moment that we can get a single queue to work. Is that in fact the best way to run a supermarket’s checkout? Continue Reading »

It doesn’t seem that there should be that much innovation in shipping. Man has plied the sea for ages, so can there be anything new under the sun? The answer is, yes, there can. And it is really, really big. The New York Times had an interesting article on the new Triple-E class of ships that A. P. Moeller-Maersk of Denmark has been bringing into service (Aboard a Cargo Colossus, Oct 3). These things are immensely huge — longer than the Eiffel Tower is tall. This video gives an idea of just how large these ships are.

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Much of operations is about standardization. There is much to be gained from building processes that are appropriately tailored to the task at hand and handling that task in the same “best” way every time. And then there is health care, where every patient is unique in some way and doing less is seen as an anathema. There is a very real possibility that not opting not to do some test or some procedure could lead to adverse outcomes for patients. However, not following best practices can lead to excessive cost.

The Wall Street Journal provides a nice example from a study at a small hospital system Christiana Care that made a conscious effort to get doctors to stick established best-practice guidelines (Hospitals Cut Costs by Getting Doctors to Stick to Guidelines, Sep 22). The procedure in question is cardiac telemetry, which is a monitoring technique, and how it should be used for patients that are not in an intensive care ward.

In cardiac telemetry, electrodes are used to monitor the heart for abnormal rhythms. To try to cut inappropriate use of the monitoring at Christiana Care, which operates two hospitals, a group of physicians redesigned the electronic system that doctors use to order tests and other care.

First, they removed the option to order telemetry for conditions not included in the [American Heart Association] guidelines. Doctors could get around this and order the monitoring, but they had to take an extra step to do so, according to Robert Dressler, who helped lead the study. “We didn’t want to get in the way of the bedside clinician who had a demonstrable concern” and wanted to use telemetry despite contradicting guidelines, he said.

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Cocktail capacity

Americans are drinking more hard liquor — particularly in fancy cocktails. If you run a bar, this is good news to the extent that mixed drinks typically sell for more than beer. But this is potentially also a problem. Mixing a complicated drink is more time-consuming than just drawing a beer so service slows down. Further, you need to have enough trained staff. If your bar is competing on offering a variety of fancy craft cocktails, you need to make sure you always have a competent mixologist behind the bar at all times.

But there are creative ways around this problem. According to the Wall Street Journal, bars are now putting some drinks on tap (Mixed Drinks on Tap: Faster Manhattans, Negronis and More, Sep 10).

As demand for creative craft cocktails shows no sign of slowing, bartenders have struggled with how to serve drinks quickly while preserving the taste. From small bars to hotel chains, they are making large batches of cocktails and connecting them to tap systems like those used for beer. And cocktails on tap, also called kegged or draft cocktails, make it easier to serve mixed drinks at large events.

“You can sell it with the speed of a draft beer. It’s the best of all possible worlds,” says Anthony Caporale, a cocktail consultant and representative for Drambuie, the whiskey liqueur that sponsors a competition for kegged cocktails.

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The history of manufacturing is to some extent the history of substituting capital for labor. Devising a way of making things that is more reliant on equipment (or an organizing principle like the Ford assembly line) allows workers to be more productive and generate more output per hour worked. But capital requires, you know, capital. Adding new equipment like robots requires an upfront investment and having that investment payoff depends on scale at which the business operates. Big firms like Roger-&-Me era GM can afford robots even if they have limited capabilities but smaller firms have a harder time taking the plunge. Until now that is, if the Wall Street Journal is to be believed (Robots Work Their Way Into Small Factories, Sep 17).

Robots have been on factory floors for decades. But they were mostly big machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had to be caged off to keep them from smashing into humans. Such machines could only do one thing over and over, albeit extremely fast and precisely. As a result, they were neither affordable nor practical for small businesses.

Collaborative robots can be set to do one task one day—such as picking pieces off an assembly line and putting them in a box—and a different task the next. …

Small businesses often need flexibility “because they’re not just packaging cookies endlessly,” says Dan Kara, a robotics expert at ABI research, a market-research firm in Oyster Bay, N.Y.

Here is a graphic of describing some of the machines discussed in the article.

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