Inside Amazon’s fulfillment centers

If Walmart is where normal America gathers, then here is where much of the stuff Americans order online comes from: Amazon fulfillment centers.

For its “Amazon Unpacked” series, UK’s The Financial Times Weekend Magazine got photographer Ben Roberts a pass into the hyper-systematized environs of one of Amazon.com’s ginormous—roughly the length of nine football fields—fulfillment warehouses. The facility in Rugeley, England, is an expansive structure flooded with natural light and imbued with the sterility and efficiency of a major hospital. Here, employees can walk between seven and 15 miles a day, and they don’t meander; the warehouse gets 35 orders a second and worker productivity is measured via handheld device. Architizer calls it “a warehouse employee’s worst nightmare,” but with all the organization, light, and crisp colors, the space seems pretty ideal for a warehouse—particularly if an employee were training for a 10K or something.

When looking at these pictures, they seem like they could either represent the possibilities of our future (think of what is on all those shelves!) or represent cold, calculating buildings that are all about feeding a consumerist economy in the most efficient way. Either way, their scale alone is impressive.

Combined with my post over the weekend about subway facades, these images could be part of a larger series on the infrastructure behind the 2013 world. When people order from Amazon, they are not likely to think about all that it takes to get the product from a factory to a distribution center and then to their door/mailbox. Yet, they know it all works and like the results. Or, think about the data centers built in places like Iowa to handle all of the information flowing through the Internet. Or, the distribution centers behind Walmart or that helped Netflix quickly ship out DVDs years ago. All of this is relatively hidden in faceless warehouses away from the consumer.

 

 

 

 

 

Netflix’s distribution problems

Netflix has had a lot of bad press in the last few months.  First, they decided to split their online-only streaming service from their mailed disc service, substantially increasing their customer’s prices.  Second, word came that they are losing their Starz distribution agreement, which will severely curtail the availability of (genuinely) recent movies on their streaming service.

Now, here comes a potential supply shock on the physical distribution side:

The United States Postal Service has long lived on the financial edge, but it has never been as close to the precipice as it is today: the agency is so low on cash that it will not be able to make a $5.5 billion payment due this month and may have to shut down entirely this winter unless Congress takes emergency action to stabilize its finances….

Missing the $5.5 billion payment due on Sept. 30, intended to finance retirees’ future health care, won’t cause immediate disaster. But sometime early next year, the agency will run out of money to pay its employees and gas up its trucks, officials warn, forcing it to stop delivering the roughly three billion pieces of mail it handles weekly.

To be sure, a long-term interruption in mail service would be an economic catastrophe extending well beyond Netflix.  Nonetheless, viewing this problem from Netflix’s perspective shows just how dependent even web-savvy companies are on physical infrastructure and distribution systems.  There will be a lot of collateral damage if businesses can no longer count on a robust and dependable USPS.

A call for a sociological study of (digital) piracy

John C. Dvorak suggests that we need more (sociological) research on the causes of digital piracy:

Understanding why piracy exists as a phenomenon needs to be better understood, but it should be up to academics, not me and other pundits, to determine the causes. Where is the great sociological study of piracy and the mentality behind it?

Dvorak briefly discusses what he thinks are the three roots of piracy: price, distribution, and marketing. At the end of the piece, he again calls for more research:

The real problem with piracy, again, is sociological. If an entire generation becomes acculturated to the free exchange of content and code, then the industry is doomed or it will have to cut back on its First Class Travel and rethink its models. Moaning and groaning about piracy will not stop it…

I’m not sure what can be done about all this, but it does need careful study, not more columns.

Sounds like it could be an interesting project. One angle would be to see how piracy has developed as a deviant (or not-so-deviant) behavior.

Some thoughts by Joel: Actually, there have been some really good academic studies of digital piracy published recently.  I wrote up some thoughts about the SSRC‘s 400+ page report titled Media Piracy in Emerging Economies in early March, and a few weeks later there was the (much shorter at 18 pages) London School of Economics paper entitled Creative Destruction and Copyright Protection:  Regulatory Responses to File-sharing.  Both are well worth reading (for sociologists, especially the former).