Executive Briefings

Opinion: Warehouses Are Going Underwater - Literally

I have in front of me US Patent 9,624,034 B1, titled, Aquatic Storage Facilities. The applicant is Amazon Technologies, Inc., and the idea is to use either man-made pools or natural bodies of water to store goods while waiting for fulfillment orders.

Opinion: Warehouses Are Going Underwater — Literally

My first reaction was somewhere between "huh?" and "you've got to be kidding." After all, every box would need to be either waterproof or put into a watertight container. And each container would be fitted with a device that could communicate with a network for retrieval. More problematically, the device/container has to be capable of sinking to the bottom of the pool for storage and then rising to the surface on command to be pulled out and put on a delivery vehicle. Extra steps, extra materials, and more cost all around.

But e-commerce is exploding, and with it, the need for storage and space to stage goods and quickly get them to customers. So there are some interesting aspects to this proposal. For one thing, each individual item moves itself as the container/balloon and box expands or contracts and the product floats up or down in the water, so all or most of the handling goes away in the ideal setting. The whole process of moving goods around the fulfillment center takes less energy because the water supports the box, and currents in the water push the goods, just like barges take less energy than trucks. Finally, think of the flexibility you get. If you need more space, you don’t build walls; you fill up what amounts to a wading pool and just back up conveyors to both or all sides. And since many big cities are close to water, you might actually be able to store the goods near your customers.

Don’t get me wrong. I think actually doing this would be cost prohibitive because of the containers, which have to be handled both for storing and for unboxing, as well as either the labor or the mechanization involved. And I’m not sure what you do when the box you need is the one on the bottom of several layers, rather than on the top. But the ideas involved do hint at solutions to the “last mile delivery” dilemma.

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My first reaction was somewhere between "huh?" and "you've got to be kidding." After all, every box would need to be either waterproof or put into a watertight container. And each container would be fitted with a device that could communicate with a network for retrieval. More problematically, the device/container has to be capable of sinking to the bottom of the pool for storage and then rising to the surface on command to be pulled out and put on a delivery vehicle. Extra steps, extra materials, and more cost all around.

But e-commerce is exploding, and with it, the need for storage and space to stage goods and quickly get them to customers. So there are some interesting aspects to this proposal. For one thing, each individual item moves itself as the container/balloon and box expands or contracts and the product floats up or down in the water, so all or most of the handling goes away in the ideal setting. The whole process of moving goods around the fulfillment center takes less energy because the water supports the box, and currents in the water push the goods, just like barges take less energy than trucks. Finally, think of the flexibility you get. If you need more space, you don’t build walls; you fill up what amounts to a wading pool and just back up conveyors to both or all sides. And since many big cities are close to water, you might actually be able to store the goods near your customers.

Don’t get me wrong. I think actually doing this would be cost prohibitive because of the containers, which have to be handled both for storing and for unboxing, as well as either the labor or the mechanization involved. And I’m not sure what you do when the box you need is the one on the bottom of several layers, rather than on the top. But the ideas involved do hint at solutions to the “last mile delivery” dilemma.

Read Full Article

Opinion: Warehouses Are Going Underwater — Literally