The amazing tech required to pack on-line orders

I bought a lot of books on line in the run-up to Christmas, and I was struck by how much quicker Amazon was able to get them to me than Chapters. When I tweeted this observation, a fellow tweep chided me — of all people — for not patronizing local bookstores.

I like a nice bookstore as much as the next fellow. Who doesn’t enjoy wandering through the stacks at J. W. Doull’s, feeling the stairs creak underfoot, talking books with the marvellous staff he employs. But it’s no accident that John Doull can no longer afford the rent in downtown Halifax. Book buyers have voted with their feet, and Amazon is winning by a landslide.

Just as iTunes represents a much better way of buying music than the old customer-contemptuous, $20-album-in-a-record-store model, so Amazon beats the pants off the bookstore model.

That impression came early and easily to me, because I live in a bookstore desert. The nearest bookstore, a bedroom sized Coles, is an hour away, and rarely stocks the books I seek. So my normal bookstore experience is to drive an hour, go to an ill-stocked store where an ill-informed clerk will tell me they don’t have what I want, place an order, drive an hour home, and repeat the round trip a week or two later when the desired volume comes in, or fails to.

Or I can sit in my living room, tap a few keys on my laptop, and have the book delivered to my house a few days later, for less than I would pay in the bookstore. Sure, I’ll miss the creaky stores, and I’ll seriously miss the wonderful people who staffed these institutions. But I’m fine with the new method, and I get more books, quicker and cheaper, as a result.

On the Tuesday before Christmas, I heard an NPR podcast about a new biography of Leonardo of Pisa, aka Fibonacci, who revolutionized modern commerce by introducing Arabic numerals to Western Europe, thereby enhancing the computing power of ordinary citizens more than anyone before Steve Jobs invented the personal computer. This would make a great present for my math-inspired son, but I’d never be able to get it by Christmas,

I checked on line. Both Amazon and Chapters had the book, but only Amazon claimed the ability to delivery it by Friday, the last delivery day before Christmas, and only if I paid an exorbitant amount for special shipping. I bit, and at about 4:30, hit Amazon’s buy button.

The package was delivered in Halifax at 10:30 the next morning, This was a miracle on a par with the Dollar Store. I’ve been puzzling ever since about how Amazon (or LL Bean, or Zappos, or Staples) can manage these feats of order processing. Today, a new TED talk appeared that explains part of the mystery.

The TED talker, Mick Mountz, founded Kiva Systems, a material handling company that is revolutionizing warehouse management by replacing conveyors with little orange robots shown at the top of the page. In action, they look like suitcase-sized Zambonis. Instead of stock pickers wandering around the warehouse, looking for products to assemble into orders, the bots bring the products to the pickers, who pack them into boxes for shipment.

They do this by moving whole shelves around the warehouse, their patterns controlled by algorithms that learn as they go, so the process continually improves. In effect, it turns a warehouse into a massively parallel processing machine, not unlike a computer. Watch the video for the fascinating details.