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Posts Tagged ‘Logistics’

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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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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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Have you ever thought about pallets? You know, those wood contraptions that can hold a pile of stuff off the floor while letting a forklift easily scoop up said pile? Here’s a snapshot of one that just happened to be lying around the Northwestern campus.

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So in many ways, there is nothing particularly special about pallets except that they play a key role in logistics and supply chains. They basically make schlepping stuff modular. What is actually stacked on the pallet doesn’t matter; a guy with a forklift can just pick it up and put it on or take it off a truck. Which is not to say that pallets are uninteresting. The people at Planet Money did a whole episode on pallets (Episode 545: The Blue Pallet, Jun 11) that makes for great listening. Here, check it out:

The key point is that there has in fact been innovation in the pallet market. What you see above is your basic stringer pallet. It consists of 15 pieces of wood and a bunch of nails. Note that with those three pieces of wood sandwiched between the other twelve, a forklift can only pick it up from two sides — either the front or back in the picture above. The alternative is to have a block pallet. A block pallet replaces that those three pieces of wood with nine blocks. Those blocks give extra spacing on the other two sides and a forklift can hoist the thing from any side. That additional flexibility increases efficiency. Go to a Costco. They have essentially mandated all their suppliers send stuff on block pallets. If you unload as many tractor trailers as Costco does, the productivity boost from block pallets really adds up. (more…)

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Shop on Amazon.com and you will find a lot of items sold by lots of different sellers. For many of those sellers, Amazon isn’t just handling acting as a store front; it is also handling the logistics of order fulfillment. Now suppose that Amazon has a particular product which both it and several third parties are selling out its warehouses. How should Amazon physically manage the inventory? Should it keep the inventory it is selling physically separate from that offered by third-party sellers? In many instances, Amazon chooses to do just the opposite, allowing for “stickerless, commingled inventory.” Here is an Amazon video explaining just what that means.

And here is how the Wall Street Journal explains the benefits of the program (Do You Know What’s Going in Your Amazon Shopping Cart?, May 11).

The system has enabled Amazon to make better use of its warehouse space and keep a wide variety of items in stock around the country. The idea is to give Amazon flexibility to ship certain products based on their proximity to customers, speeding delivery times. For third-party sellers, it saves them the trouble of having to label individual items sent to the Amazon warehouse.

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What should determine how much it costs to ship a box? Clearly the weight of the package matters as does the distance it travels. But what about its physical dimensions? Does it matter whether a one-pound object takes up a cubic foot of space or two cubic feet?

Apparently, FedEx thinks it matters and has announced that it will be tweaking its pricing policies accordingly (Web Shoppers Beware: FedEx to Charge by Package Size, Wall Street Journal, May 7).

Instead of charging by weight alone, all ground packages will now be priced according to size. In effect, that will mean a price increase on more than a third of its U.S. ground shipments. …

[The change] would likely greatly affect bulky but lighter weight items like toilet paper and diapers, which many people have delivered on a regular basis, as well as Zappos.com shoes, which ship for free, including free returns. Indeed, shoe shoppers are encouraged to buy multiple pairs, keep what fits and return the rest. Avid Web shoppers do the same with sweaters, dresses, and jackets at retailers like J. Crew, Banana Republic, and Macy’s.

This graphic gives an idea of the kind of price increases that are in play. Clearly items that are not very dense are going to be seeing a stiff price hike.

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The buzz in e-commerce has been all about speed. Firms from A to Z (or at least from Amazon to WalMart) have been trying to wring time from their distribution systems. Indeed, just yesterday Google announced it was expanding its Shopping Express same day delivery service. So what are we to make of Zulily, an e-tailer that routinely takes its sweet time to ship stuff?

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For those unfamiliar with the firm, the Wall Street Journal describe it as a “mom-focused discount site” (Zulily Customers Play the Waiting Game, May 5). Like Gilt or Rue La La, Zulily operates on a private sales model with goods being offered at a discount for a limited times to members only. The interesting thing is that their suspect shipping times actually seem to be a conscious, strategic choice. (more…)

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The last mile has long been the bugaboo of e-commerce. Getting stuff from a fulfillment center to a metropolitan area is relatively easy in comparison to putting a box on a particular doorstep. The former allows for scale and efficiency; the latter is necessarily at a smaller scale and requires coordinating lots of little details.

Now we have two stories on how Amazon is dealing with that tricky last stretch — one from the US and one from India. First up is Amazon’s effort to develop its own delivery capability in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York (Amazon, in Threat to UPS, Tries Its Own Deliveries, Wall Street Journal, Apr 24).

The new delivery efforts will get Amazon closer to a holy grail of e-commerce: Delivering goods the same day they are purchased, offering shoppers one less reason to go to physical stores. With its own trucks, Amazon could offer deliveries late at night, or at more specific times.

The move is a shot across the bow of United Parcel Service Inc., FedEx Corp. and the U.S. Postal Service, which now deliver the majority of Amazon packages. It is also a challenge to Wal-Mart Stores Inc., eBay Inc. and Google Inc., each of which is testing deliveries.

Ultimately, a delivery network could transform Amazon from an online retailer into a full-service logistics company that delivers packages for others, according to former Amazon executives. They caution that any such effort likely is years away.

So why should Amazon want to get into the business of schlepping stuff when there are multiple quite competent firms willing to do the heavy lifting for them?

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