Earlier this month, Amazon rolled out its new delivery service. Prime Now for several zip codes in Manhattan.

If you are a primary subscriber and live in serviced areas, the service promises to deliver packages to Prime users within one hour for about seven dollars — alternatively, you can get packages within two hours for free. The service currently supports about 250,000 of the most popular items and serves only a small area.

How does the service work?

Amazon achieved this incredible result thanks to a combination of impressive logistics (which we’ll talk about in a moment) and limited capacity. The footprint is tiny and it’s doubtful that, in its current form, Amazon will be able to provide it to the rest of the world, although they have some plans to expand to other areas near Amazon fulfillment centers in the next year or so. , Expanding beyond that will require going a little further.

The road to Silicon Valley is paved with the ancient remains of startups that tried to provide super-fast same-day delivery. The oldest skulls and fossilized Segways date back to the original dot-com boom, when companies like the infamous Kozmo.com tried to offer deliveries of thousands of hours per hour, only to run out of venture capital and fail. some years.

So what makes today different? What changed?

The answer is that over the past decade, the critical mass of necessary technologies has grown to finally make the dream of instant gratification a reality.

Extending this service to Amazon and its competitors will require all of this technology to work together.

Robot Warehouses

The wonderful warehouses of the Amazon, which they have only recently begun to show to the public, look surprisingly similar to the nightmarish future that the Luddites warned us about, except for a few whitened skulls. Huge, dim warehouses full of people toiling among hulking robots. locked in an intricate dance of their own design — enough to give even the most dedicated futurist a moment’s pause and a vague desire to start a rooftop garden.

It works like this: the entire warehouse is controlled by software that has a huge database of what items it has in its stomach and where they are located. He can manipulate the world with hundreds of sixteen-inch (three hundred and twenty pounds) tall robots (manufactured by Amazon called Kiva Systems) that move smoothly around the facility, pick up storage shelves, and move them to where they are. necessary. When you order an item, the robots shuffle the shelves until the nearest copy shelf appears, and then they are taken to the packing center, where a human worker puts it in a box, tapes it, and sends it down the ramp to the truck.

This has many benefits. It’s cheap to start with. The robots are robust, mechanically simple, and can charge themselves, meaning they don’t require any human attention to operate. On top of that, because warehouses don’t have to be people-centric, you can allocate more storage space, but still reduce the time it takes to find and get the item you need. All this reduces the total turnaround time at the facility to a few minutes.

As Amazon Worldwide Vice President Dave Clark said,

“Kiva does something that is not so difficult. It’s just moving inventory,” says Clarke. «It’s a tough job for a person to identify the right product, make sure it’s the right quality, and make sure it’s good enough to be a holiday gift for someone.»

computer logistics

Amazon recently filed a patent for software that, based on previous purchases, online activity, and even mouse movements, can predict what products shoppers might buy in the future. This data can be used to «pre-delivery» goods to warehouses near the customer in order to reduce the order time for delivery of goods. This comes amid a massive verticalization initiative by Amazon, which is building its warehouse network to be larger and more geographically diverse than ever before. It has even begun making its own deliveries via the Last Mile service, likely due to large holiday travel delays last year that could have cost the company a significant amount of money.

According to a job posting on his website,

“Amazon is growing faster than UPS and FedEx, which are responsible for the delivery of most of our packages,” the publication says. “In this case, Amazon cannot continue to rely solely on solutions provided by traditional logistics providers. This will limit our growth, increase costs, and hinder innovation in delivery capabilities. […] The last mile is the solution to this problem. This is a program that is going to revolutionize the delivery of goods to millions of customers.”

All of this development paints a picture of a company that is focused on turning inventory into data. Amazon would like the process of buying a physical product online to be the same as buying an MP3 on iTunes or a movie on Google Play—you push a button and your purchase arrives fast enough to trigger happy instant gratification on your endorphins. brain. As an experiment, Amazon already has a multi-city service that delivers fresh groceries right to your door.

The reason Amazon wants this is because ultimately the company doesn’t want to compete with Overstock.com, Newegg or other online retailers — the company wants to compete with everyone . This means creating an experience that is competitive with physical stores, which means a fundamental change in the way we ship.

Ultimately, all e-commerce business models boil down to high-speed pizza delivery. And if Domino’s can handle the logistics of pizza delivery in thirty minutes, then probably so can e-commerce companies. It’s just a matter of building infrastructure so that you have enough distribution centers in major population centers. Amazon has certainly not shied away from large, costly infrastructure investments in the past, so there is reason to hope they can pull it off. Here are the technologies that will become available to make this service practical.

Autonomous vehicles

We talked about autonomous vehicles. here before, but usually in terms of moving people around. There’s a good reason for this—humans are more fragile, impatient, and generally moodier than most other types of cargo. Don’t take that to mean that autonomous cars aren’t big news for shipping, though! They absolutely are. Autonomous cars (and especially electric autonomous cars) will be much, much cheaper (and environmentally friendly) to operate than traditional postal services, for both long-distance and short-haul couriers.

Amazon currently relies on bike messengers for its Amazon Now service. In the future, e-commerce companies will be able to connect to incredibly cheap autonomous transport infrastructure by partnering with a company like Google. If you were to equip an autonomous car park With mechanical luggage compartments capable of unloading themselves at destinations, you can use the same vehicles to move goods and people at the same time, providing a significant efficiency gain over maintaining separate systems.

Drone Delivery

Another option to reduce shipping costs is Amazon’s experimental drone delivery program. The idea is quite simple: use small drones to deliver packages to users on demand, delivering packages directly from warehouses to people’s homes. A number of companies interested in this idea, including old warhorses like UPS. This is similar to the autonomous vehicle approach, but has a different set of trade-offs.

Notably, the navigation problem is easier (because drones move mostly in empty space and collisions are less dangerous). However, drones themselves cannot carry large items. They also need to have smaller batteries than ground robots, which (in turn) means their range will be limited. There are also unique regulatory challenges associated with the use of private drones, and the FAA has yet to decide how consumer drone applications will be regulated. However, it seems likely that this technology will eventually be used as an integral component of high-speed parcel delivery.

The road ahead

The future belongs to fast parcel delivery. The technologies to do this are already available or under development, but it is likely that all of them will become mature within a decade. In the next decade, we may well see the beginning of the end of brick-and-mortar stores as online stores abandon their latest value proposition. This will be a major shift that will likely affect almost every aspect of our lives.

Are you happy for one hour delivery? Have you tried the Amazon service? Let us know about it in the comments!

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