On Saturday, I went for a nice long bike ride, and along the way listened to some podcasts including that morning’s new episode of Slate Money. They had a guest with a new book on it, Christopher Mims, talking about logistics and supply chains and in particular, how companies like Amazon operate. It sounded fascinating.
At around 10:30, I stopped at the Musette café for a tea and a snack, drew out my mobile phone, and placed an order for Arriving Today on Amazon. Because it was still relatively early, Amazon was offering me, a Prime member, the ability to receive a copy of the book by 10.00pm that same evening. Not knowing exactly when I’d be home or how fast Amazon could deliver it, I got them to deliver the book to a close-by Amazon Locker, which have sprouted at seemingly every railway station and petrol station across the country in recent months.
At around 7.30pm, when I was back home and despondently watching a football match, I received an alert to say that Amazon had delivered the book I’d ordered nine hours earlier. It did indeed “Arrive Today.”
What Arriving Today really explores is how that book, and all the other consumer goods we buy via e-commerce giants like Amazon, get from the factory door, to our front doors (or nearby lockers), in such an incredibly efficient way.
Mims tells this story by following a notional USB charger, from its factory in Vietnam all the way to a suburban US address. Vietnam and not China? Well, even before the pandemic, companies had been looking to have options in manufacturing bases, and with things like former President Trump’s trade battles with China, alongside increased costs in doing business there (there is less cheap labour than in the past), then Vietnam was an obvious next country to move to.
Some of the story Mims tells was previously covered in the excellent book The Box by Marc Levinson, which told the story of the humble shipping container. It was invention of this, and the regularisation of how goods are moved around that globe, that changed the face of how global trade is facilitated. Now we live in a world where a shipping container is loaded up with goods ready to go straight onto shop floors, or be delivered from fulfillment centres from where they are sent direct to our homes.
My copy of Arriving Today, was printed in the United States. It’s a title that comes from the Harper Business imprint, and perhaps the publishers don’t think they’ll sell an enormous number of copies in the UK, or at least not enough that a UK print run is necessary. One way or another, my book was printed in a US printing facility (unlike UK books, many US titles don’t detail precisely where). Without even considering how that printing plant received its bulk paper deliveries and ink supplies, the finished book was shipped with thousands of others in containers, probably directly to an Amazon facility. There, my book was one of a number that were then shipped on another truck to perhaps either a port facility on the East Coast for onwards shipping by sea to the UK, or perhaps, via Prime Air freight to East Midlands Airport.
Mims details the way that ports have modernised and automated to a large extent in recent years, with the most modern facilities having robots lift and shift containers in the most optimal way possible. When containers are stacked on one another, you ideally want the containers that will be retrieved first to be on the top of the stacks, at the outermost edges of the groups of stacks. Efficiencies are achieved in this way, and trucks collecting their goods have less waiting time.
Trucking itself is a major part of the book, and while it mostly explores it from the US’s perspective – it’s interesting to read about the shortages of drivers in the US, while at the same time, the job is not as good as it was, and the structure of the industry seems to be doing little to improve matters.
Automated driving is also explored, although as ever, it always feels a few years off. Indeed a constant theme of this book is that despite some engineering and computational breakthroughs delivered by things like machine learning, humans are still brilliant at many tasks that machines just cannot manage. But technology does keep nibbling away. Some of those jobs we have today, will be done by robots tomorrow.
Once in the UK, and shipped on from its port or airport of entry, my book would have gone to an Amazon fulfilment centre. There, the pallet of books that my copy of Arriving Today was part of, would be broken apart. In the most automated of fulfilment centres, each copy of the book would go into its own “tote” – a plastic container – that a robot would later be able to pick and retrieve automatically. When I placed my order on Saturday morning, drinking my Earl Gray, somewhere in a large facility in southern England, a robot perhaps whizzed up and down the stacks and retrieved the tote with my copy of the book.
Mims goes into great detail about how Amazon built and constantly refines its systems. Amazon uses some of the same kinds of technologies that are now in Amazon Fresh stores to allow checkout-less shopping, in its warehouse facilities.
While a robot may have picked out the book that I ordered, it still takes a human to pack it in a box – along with any other items that I bought at the same time. And with many products in many places, some high powered optimisation technology is at work to deliver my orders in the most efficient way. Ever order a large basket of items for Amazon and notice how different things will arrive separately? That optimisation is working from the moment you compile your order. Amazon probably has stacks of its Echo smart speakers, discounted for Black Friday sales, at lots of quite local facilities to enable quick delivery. But that used copy of a long out of print book I wanted? That has to come from a single location in Scotland and so is going to take longer.
There are further layers of sorting that may yet happen. Depending on where I live, Amazon may truck on my now packed parcel to a local centre for onward delivery by van. Only then does a driver make the rounds and drop off my package in an Amazon locker, at which point I receive a notification that it’s ready for collection.
While the marvels of technology make much of this possible, Mims explores the human cost of a lot of this work. While Amazon has employed hundreds of thousands of people over recent years – especially during the pandemic when e-commerce sales soared and continue to be at all time highs – the work is still physically demanding, and sounds at times quite soulless. While the most modern facilities mean that workers don’t have to walk the miles that they once did, they’re still on their feet all day, and are rarely able to converse with others. They can’t even listen to music for health and safety reasons. Some injuries may not become evident until years later.
And everything is measurable.
Mims talks about the pioneers of this kind of continuous measurement and how today we can measure just about every nano-second of every process, looking for micro-improvements that can scale up. But that just means that workers have to work harder and faster – they’re graded on bell curves and at the lower end, those who can’t make the grade will eventually be let go. Plenty of others just leave of their own accord. Amazon’s staff turnover seems enormously high. They counter this by paying more than minimum wage and offering good benefits. It will be interesting to see how this develops in the present climate where, in America especially, there is a large turnover in people quitting low-paying jobs that they just don’t like. Is there an endless supply of people to keep filling them? For the time being, there is.
The same is true further down the line when we reach the delivery vans that make the final drop-offs at our homes and businesses. Drivers have lengthy lists of upwards of 100 drops to make on a given day. We’ve all heard the horror stories about no breaks, and no places to stop to go to the toilet. The routes are all optimised, although it’s interesting to read the chapter in which the author follows around a UPS driver who only follows the precise routing she’s been given about 80% of the time. Her local knowledge is still able to refine the routing better than computers that have had billions of dollars spent on them.
A few days before I bought my copy of this book, I made an order of Amazon Fresh groceries. Amazon hasn’t quite cracked the UK grocery market yet, and tends to use, from what I can tell, freelance drivers who might just as easily be Uber drivers at another time of the day. I had ordered some groceries for same-day delivery and they were due between 4pm and 6pm. In retrospect, that’s not a great time to do deliveries as you are meeting the school rush, and the end of the commuter workday.
Amazon’s app lets you track your driver once they are out on the route in real time. It tends to default to letting you see them when they are 9 or fewer stops away. But drivers doing these grocery runs tend to only have a handful of drops, and they’re arriving in their own personal cars rather than branded refrigerated vans that other supermarket chains use.
As I looked at the app, it told me my driver was 4 drops away from me, but I could see he was also in Welwyn Garden City, about 16 miles away. That might not seem that far, but I live in dense North London, where deliveries tend to be only a handful of miles apart. My driver eventually arrived at my door about 15 minutes outside the allotted window. He was apologetic, but also apoplectic with the app that had routed him so far during such a busy time of day. There was no way, he told me, that he could have made up that distance in the time allowed for given the traffic at that time of the day.
Optimisation, it seems, still has a way to go.
My one criticism of this book is that although it was written during a time of Covid, it doesn’t really capture some of the issues that the pandemic brought about. Perhaps it’s too early to know the true story, but supply chains have been crippled, as automotive manufacturers have to shut down plants or remove functionality, all for the lack of some computer chips that cost a few cents each. But to be fair, this book is about the products leaving the factory door and getting to us. How supply chains work in the lead-up to manufacturing and assembly is a whole other story, and something that pandemic has perhaps shown us to be not quite so good at as we thought we were.
Overall, this is an absolutely fascinating book, that is well worth your time.