本期经济学人杂志关于全球供应链的【特别报道】中的第五篇题为《Amazon and Alibaba are pacesetters of the next supply-chain revolution》的文章介绍了亚马逊和阿里巴巴在仓储物流方面所做的努力和取得的成就，文章认为其他行业要想跟上这两个科技巨头高效的步伐，应该使自己的供应链体系更加智能。
文章先介绍了位列世界 500 强企业之首的美国零售巨头沃尔玛在供应链方面所做的改变。如今的沃尔玛通过自动化仓储物流管理等措施确保食物水果等保持新鲜。
美国的亚马逊消费者中有一半是会员 (Prime)，人数大概有 1 亿，他们享受免费的“两日达”配送服务。平均每位亚马逊 Prime 会员每年的消费额达 1400 美元，比非会员的两倍还多。亚马逊通过预测模型、机器学习算法、自动化设备以及分布在美国的众多分发中心得到最佳的仓储配送方案。2018 年 4 月，亚马逊宣布计划投资 8 亿美元升级供应链设施，力争将“两日达”缩短至“次日达”。
由于电子商务和手机支付的发展，中国以前落后的物流现在变得格外高效。文章认为中国人不仅拥有发展尖端科技的能力，也擅长给出低成本的有效解决方案，这能更快地适应市场。比如浙江立镖生产的分拣机器人——“小黄人”可以实现24小时不间断分拣，且通过回避复杂的 AI 算法和导航设计节约成本，让客户能够负担得起。
文章还介绍了阿里巴巴在杭州园区内的盒马鲜生店内的购买运作流程，以及菜鸟物流平台非常快的配送速度。菜鸟计划投入 1000 亿元人民币升级它的物流系统，力争做到包裹中国“次日达”，全球“三日达”。文章最后认为其他行业要想跟上这两个科技巨头高效的步伐，应该使自己的供应链体系更加智能。
Amazon and Alibaba are pacesetters of the next supply-chain revolution
Amazon and Alibaba are pacesetters of the next supply-chain revolution
The online giants are pushing others to innovate
Print edition | Special report
Jul 11th 2019
Greg smith is obsessed with the freshness of strawberries. Walmart’s top supply-chain executive in America is overhauling the retail giant’s distribution system, and in his mind speed is paramount. Strawberries have only 12.2 days of life after picking, he reckons, and the firm did not always get them to stores fast enough. The radical changes he is introducing can sometimes cut three to four days out of their journey to the store.
In the past, Walmart had a one-size-fits-all approach to its supply chain, he says, but now it is fast-tracking certain perishable and quick-selling goods. It used to keep inventories stored at warehouses, but now it is “flowing” priority goods directly to retailers. When his lorries get to stores, fresh items are sent directly to shelves for purchase rather than sitting in back rooms.
To gauge progress, visit a Walmart outlet down the road from the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas. A robot made by Bossa Nova, a Californian startup, roams the isles scanning every shelf for out-of-stock items. The back of the store houses a semi-automated system for unloading lorries. The stockroom is surprisingly bare. An inspection of the produce aisles confirms that the strawberries are, indeed, delectably fresh.
The story of the speedy strawberry illustrates a broader transformation. “Retail before Walmart was slow, lumbering and inefficient,” recalls an industry veteran. The firm already revolutionised supply chains once, before the arrival of the internet, by stripping out inefficiencies in logistics and telling the world’s biggest brands that it would manage their product flow through its superior supply chain. Now it wants to repeat the trick for a more digitised age. Mr Smith says Walmart is replacing all its supply-chain systems, both physical and digital, to shift from batch processing to continuous replenishment.
Upstream, the firm is investing in technologies that he hopes will allow it to track individual stock-keeping units (skus) through the supply chain. Its warehouses are introducing automatic storage and retrieval systems and autonomous vehicles (avs). In July the firm will open an automated facility in California that will handle three times the volume of ordinary ones.
The firm is moving faster downstream, too. It is working with Alert Innovation, an automation startup, to develop a robot that can fill online grocery orders more quickly for dispatch from its retail outlets. It is crowdsourcing the last-mile delivery of orders through a service called Spark Delivery.
All this is producing results. Productivity at Walmart’s distribution centres, measured in cases per hour, went up 13% in the past 18 months. Billions of dollars have been stripped out of inventory. In the most recent quarter, same-store sales in America were up 3.4% on the previous year and e-commerce sales up 37%.
On May 1st Walmart implemented a new policy under which suppliers must meet tougher “On Time, In Full” (otif) targets for deliveries of stock or else suffer hefty fines. On June 7th it unveiled a new service that allows customers who order groceries online to have them delivered directly into their fridge.
Why does the firm ranked number one by revenue on the most recent Fortune 500 list feel such need for speed? A Walmart executive explains: “A competitor who will remain nameless…is forcing all of us to think differently, and we should.”
Amazon’s introduction of the idea of “low cost, always in stock” is turbocharging innovation. The new front-line is next-day delivery. Over half of Amazon’s customers in America—some 100m people—are Prime members who pay an annual fee to get free two-day shipping. They spend about $1,400 a year each with the firm, more than double the amount spent by non-Prime shoppers.
The firm operates dozens of fulfilment centres in America and has splashed out on automation. With the aid of machine-learning algorithms, robots work in tandem with humans to pick and pack items speedily. By one estimate, Amazon can usually ship a parcel just hours after an online purchase despite operating with a third less inventory than typical retailers.
Amazon’s introduction of the idea of “low cost, always in stock” is turbocharging innovation
By employing predictive models, the firm works out where orders are likely to come from. It then uses its intimate knowledge of consumers to manage capacity, place products closer to them and determine delivery routes. Its integrated business model gives it a massive data advantage over rivals that allows it “to have visibility through the entire supply chain…and make better decisions,” says Udit Madan, its last-mile-delivery guru.
Now the race is hotting up. In April Amazon announced plans to spend $800m upgrading its supply-chain infrastructure in the second quarter to speed up free delivery worldwide, from two days to one. In May Walmart fired back. It unveiled free one-day delivery on over 200,000 items in its online store for orders over $35. It expects the service, which requires no membership, to be available in most of the United States by the end of this year. It will spend over $200m on infrastructure.
“We like larger cities,” says Mr Madan, “as density increases the number of deliveries we can make in a given time and speed is usually faster.” Complexity and variability in the messy megalopolises of emerging markets (because of the lack of formal addresses, say, and standstill traffic) spur innovation. In such markets, his drivers carry sophisticated handheld devices that allow the cancellation of orders up to a minute before delivery.
The rich-world giants are right to look to the developing world for inspiration. China is leapfrogging from ropey logistics to supercharged supply chains, just as it did with e-commerce and mobile payments, in which it went from laggard to world-beater.
Creatures of the night
The robots come out after dark in Hangzhou. Seven hundred of them are moving purposefully around the upper floor of a large distribution centre run by China Post, the state-run postal carrier. These flat yellow workhorses made by Libiao, a local startup, work through the night sorting packages for delivery across China. Workers scan packages and place them on the devices. The robots make their way to the chute for the destination city among scores of openings and drop the packages in. On the floor below the packages are whisked from the chutes to waiting lorries.
Amazon leads in the use of ai-powered robots in logistics, but China’s entrepreneurs have the edge in speed. Mainland innovators are capable of cutting-edge inventions, for example in facial-recognition software. However, they are also good at frugal engineering, throwing together cheap solutions that can get to market faster than the gold-plated ones favoured by Western innovators.
Xia Huiling, who co-founded Libiao with her husband, eschewed complex ai and navigation systems that would have made each robot autonomous, in order to keep the system affordable. Her dumb robots merely follow trajectories calculated centrally. Through Tompkins, an American supply-chain firm, with which it has a partnership, Libiao is trying an inventive business model too. Retailers facing seasonal demand spikes can lease a handful of robots for as long as needed. “They are plug and play,” says Ms Xia.
Libiao is one of the promising startups in which glp, a privately held Singapore logistics investment firm, has a stake. Victor Mok, glp’s China co-president, is introducing logistics parks with smart gates and loading docks for expedited clearing of lorries as well as automation inside warehouses. Through its investment in Inceptio, a local startup, it is developing autonomous lorries, too.
Not far from the China Post warehouse is the headquarters of Alibaba, the world’s biggest e-commerce firm by transaction volume. On its leafy campus is an outlet of Hema Xiansheng, a chain in which it has a stake. It looks like a conventional supermarket, albeit with an unusually large selection of Maine lobsters. On closer inspection, many shoppers appear to be leaving without proffering cash, card or mobile payment. Bags of groceries whizz by on an overhead conveyor system.
Hema has invested in the technologies needed to combine online and offline shopping. In-store shoppers can pay using facial-recognition (young people favour this, whereas oldies tend to pay by traditional means). The flying groceries go to an army of waiting couriers, who deliver online orders free within a 3km radius within 30 minutes.
Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics platform, is investing 100bn yuan ($14.5bn) upgrading logistics to ensure next-day delivery in China and three-day delivery worldwide. “Our warehouse system is the most heavily used in the world,” says Ben Wang of Cainiao. Last year, on November 11th, a shopping extravaganza known as Singles Day, the firm sold $30bn-worth of goods. Shoppers wearing virtual-reality goggles could buy stuff with a flick of the head. Cainiao delivered the first 100m parcels (of 1bn orders) within 2.6 days, better than 2.8 days a year earlier.
Amazon is looking seriously at drones and autonomous robots for the last mile, which it considers the choke point for fast delivery. In June it unveiled its Prime Air drone, a hybrid aircraft which is to start making deliveries in “the coming months”. Ask Mr Madan to look five years ahead and he predicts that product selection will grow and delivery will get even faster. How fast? “Thirty minutes,” he says confidently. Then, after reflection, he adds with a mischievous smile, “Maybe 15.” How can the rest of the industry keep pace with supercharged superstars like Amazon and Alibaba? The only hope is for them to make their supply chains smarter.
Correction (July 12th 2019): An earlier version of this article stated that Libiao was a Chinese firm, and had acquired Tompkins. This has been corrected. Sorry.
This article appeared in the Special report section of the print edition under the headline "The speedy strawberry"