Arrived today: From the factory to the front door — everything has changed about why, how and what we bought
By Christopher Mimes, Harper Business, 2021
Sometimes, writing a book seems like a fool’s errand. This is a long, arduous project, planned a few years ago and has to fit in with existing jobs and publishers’ schedules. It takes unusual foresight and often a lot of luck to write something wisely. This process is more complicated when things are moving fast. Christopher Mimes, Tech Columnist The Wall Street JournalTry such a thing with Coming todayA detailed and dedicated commentator on the logistics industry.
After years of reporting from Mims ships, ports, trucks and warehouses, the epidemic strikes and everything is turned upside down. As Mimes discovers, “a period of frantic activity … has become the new norm for the entire industry.” Clearly, the epidemic had to be accounted for in the book. The problem is, so far, the storm-monitoring companies আম Amazon, FedEx, UPS এখনও are still figuring out what the post-epidemic future will look like. Coming today Past references are made with reference to disasters, but these only have the effect of underlining how unknown the future of the industry is. Beyond highlighting the fact that the epidemic has accelerated the adoption of e-commerce, it is difficult for MIMS or anyone else to look to the future with much clarity.
However, as a study of the logistics industry in the pre-epidemic era, Coming today A fine piece of work. It includes fascinating sections on how the different stages of the delivery process work. The book focuses on how industry workers cope with the introduction of automation. This is the familiar ground. Two recent examples are Andres Oppenheimer The robot is coming And Daniel Saskind A world without work. But Mims balances direct evidence with a broader understanding of management theory to find some new insights. He encounters ship’s crew, longshoremen, warehouse workers, truck drivers and delivery drivers in the same direction. Automation has pushed them to the sidelines and now accomplishes a huge proportion of what they used to do, but it still needs supervision. A senior sailor has become “a human failure-safe for automated systems that usually do not require any intervention.” A longshoreman has changed the life of knives, hooks, barrels and sacks for “an ergonomic office chair” in a quiet office, requiring a “loop” if a crane encounters difficulties. In an automated truck, there is a man whose “hand is off the wheel but is always hovering near it.” This job requires a lot of knowledge and skills but little application of them. As the book makes clear, for these workers, employers see the redundancy of these workers as a step towards a fully automated future.
People still need a small number of specific tasks that make automation seem complicated. In an Amazon warehouse, Mims observes an associate named Tyler while he is at a “pick” station, selecting goods for shipping. When an item flashes on a screen, Tyler removes the matching from a bin of random product, checks that it is in good condition, scans its bar code, puts it in a container, and sends it along a carrier. He performed the series in about ten seconds. So far, there is no robot in the world that can do Tyler’s work with the same speed or accuracy. Similarly, at the FedEx selection center, people still have to sort packages that are either smaller than a poly bag T-shirt or larger than a flatscreen TV. These tasks demand skills that we could not replicate or teach in robots.
People still need to pick packages smaller than T-shirts or larger than flatscreen TVs. These tasks require skills that we have not been able to replicate in robots.
Theoretically, coexistence of workers and robots should be possible. Automation has reduced some of the hazards and discomfort of blue-collar work (although Mims cites research that suggests that Amazon warehouses have more injuries than those that don’t use robots). This has certainly made such workers more productive. The problem is that we don’t value Tyler’s hard-earned automation skills as much as his flashy fingers. Mimes agrees with Emily Guendelberger, a journalist who embedded herself in an Amazon warehouse. He concludes: “Any kind of improvement workers can benefit from these technologies is prevented by the way they are applied.” In other words, if a firm automates a process that makes an employee 20% more productive, the employee will lose those benefits if their company increases their target by the same amount.
The big logistics companies, Mimes argues, have modernized the theories of early industrialists like Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford, which have reduced employees to mere cogs in the supply chain. They’ve also added a new element to the name of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, whom MIMS calls “Bezosim”: in the method of telerezim, instead of comparing employees’ performance with other employees to discover what they are capable of, Amazon pitches its humanity. Workers against its robots. Robots must not have to eat, sleep or take a break from the bathroom, which makes human incompetence different. Instead of sticking to an employee through personal illness, Bezosism’s argument suggests that it is best to make Amazon’s humanitarian work as simple and easy as possible, a practice known as “de-skilling” to allow the missing employee. Go and replace with another within hours. In fact, Mimes believes that high turnover can actually be beneficial for any company with routine work. Having a lot of new, junior staff means having less expensive staff for a longer period of time. This makes it more difficult to organize for union.
Mims’ other major discovery is that automation of the delivery industry is still in its infancy. He learned that even Amazon, which he described as the “best asset, talent, ruthless … fast-moving” company on the planet, had robots in only 15% of its fulfillment centers in early 2019. He believes that Amazon has thousands of facilities around the world where “the real work is still done by tools that have changed little over the last fifty years – forklifts, pallet jacks and thousands of people.” The process of pushing people to the margins, in the mundane role where they connect one automated system to another is just a “biological connector”.
Described to the world Coming today One of the wonders of human intelligence. Mimes is an interactive delivery map created by Automated Semitrack, featuring the details of silent, swarming cranes capable of picking up shipping containers at Amazon’s Willie Wanka-Esk Energy and Los Angeles Port. It is also deeply troubling. Truckers are tired, grateful for a rest stop with room for them to park for the night. The third companion on a container ship is so depressed that he does not notice the spectacular sea sunrise. Most of all, however, it is a world that, due to the pace of change in the industry, is likely to become unfamiliar in five years.
- Mike Jackman Is a freelance journalist and has previously worked for the PwC and the Economist Intelligence Unit.