The Drones are Coming

It had to happen, sooner or later: last week Amazon made their first delivery by drone. They’ve been testing the potential of autonomous rotorcraft for more than three years, so it was about time that they started making flying deliveries – it’s something that Santa Claus has been doing since 1821, after all. Let’s be clear, though: the Amazon customer in question lived close to the fulfilment centre, in the wilds of Cambridgeshire. He’s one of exactly two customers who are currently eligible for the service, although Amazon plan to roll the ‘Prime Air’ service out to “dozens” of customers in the future.

They’re wise to experiment in the flatlands of Cambridgeshire, where there’s precious little in the way of geography to challenge the algorithm that steers the drone, and relatively few people around who might sue if a drone and its 2.7kg payload fell on them.

Amazon Prime Air drone

Amazon Prime Air – coming soon, to a back garden near you?

As a proof of concept, consider it a genuine milestone. People can now receive manna (well, popcorn) from the heavens. In daylight. When winds are low. When it isn’t raining. Or snowy, or icy, or foggy. Assuming, furthermore, that you don’t live in a place where a cable such as a telephone wire passes over your garden. I suppose that trees and birds might pose a problem, too – not to mention thieves who could try to bring down a drone as a kind of ‘lucky dip’ at its unknown contents.

Avoiding the perils and complexities of aerial navigation, but perhaps more at risk of theft, is the (apparently nameless) robot demonstrated last year by Starship Technologies – a company set up by Skype founders Ahti Heinla and Janus Friis. It operates at street level, toiling along at four miles an hour with up to 18kg of packages on board. It’s not intended to make long-distance deliveries, but to cover the final mile after a ‘portable warehouse’ is stocked up and then parked in your neighbourhood… for a claimed $1 per delivery (which is to say around a fifteenth of the cost of a person in a van).

Unlike the Amazon drone, which drops off its package and immediately heads home, Starship Technologies appear to have designed their drone as a mobile box that opens when it meets the designated recipient. Not so great if you’re not home: the robot doesn’t appear to have a mechanism that would allow it to offload its cargo at your premises.

That a package might be left unattended in my garden is nothing new: the delivery drivers that come to my house already leave my goods in a variety of random places, including the doorstep, any of three wheelie-bins, my neighbour’s garage, my son’s sandpit, and on or under the garden furniture. What happens in high density urban areas, though?

One suggestion is that we should all have a giant mailbox for parcels. Hippo Dropbox, for example: a secure box at your address where a delivery driver places the package inside, and the door locks as soon as it’s closed. (A barcode on the inside of the door can be scanned, this constituting a signature where required.) That’s a neat idea, except that at this time of year I’m sometimes getting five parcel deliveries a day – some of them surprise gifts. I foresee the first driver of the day using the Hippo box, secure in the knowledge that he’s done the right thing… but this leaves the box locked. The high-value item that arrives next can’t go in the box, per the delivery instructions, and the barcode can’t be scanned in lieu of a signature. That item must go back to the depot, journey wasted, perhaps several days running.

While logistics textbooks often discuss the ‘final mile’, it appears that the final few metres might be the toughest of all to crack.

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

Hippo Dropbox. The standard size is £235.00 with free delivery (but where will they put it?)

One problem that the flying drone must overcome is that a map reference alone does not identify a household, because in many cases people share a building. Where do you drop a parcel, when your customers live in high-rise flats? Bizarrely, if the future is delivery by air, we would be entering a time where the logistics of home shopping become simpler for those in rural areas – but that’s no good because over 54% of the world’s population live in urban areas (according to a 2014 report from the UN, with a rise to 66% by 2050 anticipated).

I’m not anti-drone as such, and using them to deliver packages is probably a better application than bouncing one off the Flying Scotsman, but there are practicalities to consider.

What’s the environmental impact of a drone? It’s clearly going to consume a lot of electricity because those quad-rotor aircraft expend most of their energy simply in staying up, with forward motion being a relatively minor component of the vector. Maybe you can install a solar farm, or claim your electricity comes on a green tariff such as nuclear. Well, maybe… but electricity is a commodity and when you’re using ‘green’ energy for one thing, it means somebody elsewhere is having their needs met with fossil fuels, so I don’t buy that. There’s also the question of noise, and some people might raise safety concerns. Not an issue while the drones are being used experimentally (or as a marketing gimmick), but what if there were thousands of the things buzzing about?

A question that we have to ask ourselves is, do we really need to receive things in such a hurry? Many businesses are still grappling with the implications of next-day delivery, and those who have made that particular leap have in some cases moved on to same-day delivery. Delivery within two hours. Delivery within the hour. And now… what?

I’m concerned because it makes me think of the Stanford marshmallow experiment, where developmental psychologists assess the maturity of a child based on his or her ability to resist the temptation of an immediate reward. Children who can’t resist the temptation to have it now are scientifically proven to be more prone to impulsivity, aggressiveness and hyperactivity. As adults, they’re more likely to abuse drugs and other substances, more likely to get divorced, and more likely to be overweight. And now we’re designing logistics systems to respond to the demand for instant gratification. We’re rewarding and reinforcing the idea that clicking the button delivers satisfaction… even though we know that there’s this thing called climate change, that it’s man-made and that it’s accelerating. You can have it now, or you can be ‘green’. Which will you choose?

What a curious age we live in!

On a more worthy note, experiments in Malawi have seen a drone used to transport blood samples to a clinic where HIV testing can be performed. In a country where the roads are bad, sending blood samples via motorcycle courier is expensive, so batching together a large number of samples is the norm. This can result in dangerous delays, with UNICEF reporting that it can take as long as eleven days for blood samples to reach a laboratory. Matternet believe that their drones could be the answer.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

Blood samples en-route to the laboratory, as the crow flies.

As Cute as a Button

I wanted to like Amazon’s ‘Dash’ Button. I wanted to be able to report on it as a manifestation of the long-anticipated Internet of Things, where everyday objects are networked, and can send and receive useful data.

Dash is an electronic doohickey with a single button, about the size of a human thumb. Each Dash button displays the logo of one particular brand, and is configured such that a single press causes a consignment of the corresponding item to be dispatched by Amazon. You’re supposed to use the gadget’s adhesive backing to place it somewhere relevant, such as where you store your supply of dishwasher tablets, or your, uh… Play-Doh.


Wait, what? Just how many households need a streamlined way to obtain Play-Doh on a regular basis? (“D’oh!”)

This is amazing, on some levels. It demonstrates that Internet-enabled devices have become so inexpensive that they can be given away – and so very simple to set up. It wasn’t so long ago that I was blogging about the near-impossibility of getting my Raspberry Pi on a wireless network, but now anybody can get an even cheaper gadget to work. Setting up a Dash button is simplicity itself, although I was dismayed at first to find that I needed to install an Amazon app on my ’phone and turn its Bluetooth on. Was Dash merely some dumb Bluetooth remote clicker? That wasn’t what I wanted: I wanted my household to be wirelessly, remorselessly efficient even when my phone (and I) are many miles away from the cabinet where we keep the dishwasher tablets, or whatever.

I needn’t have worried, as the Bluetooth phase is only for setup. After your ’phone and Dash button have exchanged a handshake and you’ve divulged your wifi password, the only thing you need to do with your ’phone is choose exactly what it will order.

And here comes the first problem: only a very limited range of products can be ordered at the push of a button. CNET journalist Bridget Carey pointed out that the Gillette-branded button didn’t offer any way to order supplies from the women’s range, Gillette Venus. Another reviewer grumbled that only the more expensive blades such as the Fusion type could be ordered, and not the (relatively) cheapo Mach 3.

These aren’t massive problems because they aren’t a fault with the Dash button itself: it’s a question of what Amazon choose to make available, and this can be fixed at any time. So can the idea of button-clicking replenishment in the home be made to work?

It’s at the delivery stage where things go wrong. Amazon simply can’t afford to make good on the small consignments that ordinary families would want to order at the push of a button. Consider tissues: I normally buy a twin-pack of Kleenex Mansize. When we’re running low they are recorded on the shopping list, for my weekly trip to Tesco. If somebody in the house has a cold and we run out mid-week, they can probably find more tissues in the guest room, or they can use toilet roll, or go and buy their own damn tissues at the pharmacy in the village.

As an Amazon Prime customer, you have a new option: you can push the Dash button. This still leaves you blowing your nose on scratchy toilet roll for a day or two (logistics and economics being what they are) but then a harried-looking van driver with a Polish accent arrives on your doorstep, asking if he’s found the right house and carrying a box of Kleenex.

A huge box of Kleenex.

As a paid-up Prime customer (the only kind who can obtain a Dash button) you’re entitled to free, next-day delivery, but Amazon aren’t going to haemorrhage profits on the delivery of small consignments of cheap, bulky paper tissues. Instead, all they offer with a Dash button is delivery in wholesale quantities.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the Kleenex Mansize tissues that I wanted… twenty-four boxes at a time.

My Kleenex Dash button provides me with the tissues that I want… twenty-four boxes at a time.

In smaller homes, storage space is going to be an issue. Some people might find that Dash introduces a cash flow issue, too. Basically, in the name of convenience, you’ve become your own warehouse… and it’s not all that convenient.

I don’t find this to be very ‘green’, either. My bulk order of 1,200 tissues were very over-packaged, featuring twenty-four individual boxes, each comprised of both cardboard and a plastic film (here at Capacify, we don’t like monstrous hybrids)… all in a plastic bag, in a big cardboard box. I accept that Amazon can only sell what manufacturers such as Kimberly-Clark sell them, but the economics of this are all wrong. On a per-sneeze basis this over-packaged offering was the most economical, for me, but there was probably more cellulose used to make cardboard boxes than to make tissues.

Another big fail for the Amazon Dash button is that human beings like pressing buttons… but how often do you actually get to enjoy your button-related activity if one press delivers a four-month supply? Also, we Salivate like Pavlov’s dogs at the positive feedback of instant gratification… but Amazon can’t compress the shipping time for our stuff to anything that feels as if the push of a button is really connected to the delivery of the goods. What you get is a brief green glow to show that the request is acknowledged, and then a notification on your smartphone, giving the person who’s actually paying for the items the chance to opt out.

It’s official: romance is dead.

It’s official: romance is dead.

In our house, the neat industrial design of the Dash button is somewhat wasted because I had to hide it in the cupboard with the controls for the central heating. My young son would be fascinated by the idea that there’s a magic button that can be pressed to make stuff appear on our doorstep. (Especially if that stuff were Play-Doh… although even just to make the green light come on would probably be reason enough. Over, and over, and over…)

Instead of criticising Amazon for being a big, bad corporation that has taken over our lives, take a moment to feel some sympathy for them. They’re actually in a bit of a pickle. When they arrived on the scene, many people were still reluctant to use a credit card online for anything at all. Through innovation and sheer hard work, Jeff Bezos has built a vast commercial empire, but in the process he’s trained people to use the Internet to buy stuff – and Internet-enabled customers are fickle. They’ve been conditioned to use price comparison websites when buying new, branded goods; to expect free delivery; to cut out middle-men; to perform free returns with no quibbles; to get next-day or even same-day delivery. There is no buyer loyalty anymore, and profit margins are thin, because there’s always going to be somebody out there who is prepared to work for next-to-nothing in the hope of building market share. (And for many years, that somebody was Amazon themselves, ploughing profits back in and going for growth rather than money, as such. Consider their dividend history.)

Amazon’s efforts to put the genie of free, next-day delivery back in the bottle include the failed Amazon Pantry – where Amazon sought to persuade ‘Prime’ customers (those who already pay an annual fee for their free delivery) that they ought to pay a fee for each box of goods that were delivered. “There’s Something Rotten in Amazon’s Pantry” quipped Seamus Condron, who commented:

“Why on Earth would I, an Amazon Prime member, pay Amazon to ship me something that I won’t get for 1-4 business days? That is not an Amazon Prime service, that is a snake oil operation at its finest.”

And now, of course, the Dash button. They first appeared in limited numbers in late March of 2015, which was a bit of a blunder as many Internet denizens believed them to be a joke for April Fool’s day. But no: Amazon were sincere about Dash.

I was curious, because any study of supply chain trends ought to be all about new methods of ordering and fulfilment. It turns out that the ordering mechanism is novel, but the same old fulfilment process is used and it simply doesn’t keep pace… but then, Dash was never meant to empower the consumer. Consumers are empowered when they have access to the Internet, but that means price comparisons, shopping around… disloyalty.

For £4.99 (refunded when first used) Amazon and I entered into a relationship where I no longer have to type into a web browser, while in return Amazon get to ensure I do business only with them, that I order more than I need, that I choose from a limited range of products, and that I display the logo of a brand in my home.

Bad bargain!

The technology is interesting. That a reliable and non-nerdy wifi and bluetooth-enabled device can be built for well under £5 is interesting, too… and I look forward to seeing what else might be done with similar technology by other suppliers, or other innovators.

I’ve been monitoring the price for the consignment of tissues that I ordered, and at times they’ve been available for as little as half what I paid, although Amazon’s price fluctuates with no apparent logic. That’s fair enough if you’re a web-browser customer, but a Dash button customer runs the risk of feeling like a chump for buying things without checking the price. (Having “more money than sense,” is how we would describe this, where I come from.)

Now, I don’t mind paying top dollar once for the sake of an experiment. I got this article for Capacify out of it, after all… but I don’t intend to leave myself on the hook this way. I was going to take the Dash button out of range of my wifi network and then dismantle it, pinching the battery or batteries inside for my own use before I condem the rest of it as e-waste… but it appears that others are way ahead of me: actually hacking the Dash button to make it do something that they find to be much more useful than Amazon intended.

Consider me impressed.

Charged with Battery

As something of a model aircraft enthusiast, I’ve been hearing scare stories about lithium-ion batteries for over a decade – and they’re not just stories: every once in a while a model flier would leave a battery charger running in their vehicle, and suffer a fire that gutted it.

Any battery will get hot if subjected to an inappropriate regime of charging or discharging, but this kind poses additional hazards due to its chemical properties. I’m going to have to simplify quite a bit here, but basically the chemistry of the common lithium-ion cell leaves it vulnerable to a condition that is euphemistically termed “thermal runaway.”

Inside each cell is a cathode and an anode, separated by an electrolyte and a porous material called the separator.

If a component has a manufacturing defect, if it becomes damaged, if it’s short-circuited or perhaps if it’s made to work too hard, the electrolyte can catch fire – but that’s just the start. In the fire, the decomposition of the cathode and anode commonly release (among other things, if I have understood correctly) oxygen, and hydrogen. The release of oxygen in particular means that the more it burns… the more it burns. Naturally, the heat generated inside the cell means that its neighbours promptly get in on the act and the whole battery burns.

If this occurs in a confined space, such as that formed by the casing of a mobile ’phone, you get a small explosion – plus toxic gases released as the other components in the phone are subjected to extreme heat.

Oh – and lithium reacts with water. It’s not really going to be an issue by the time you notice that Samsung made you a smoke grenade instead of a telephone… but strictly speaking, you ought to use a powder extinguisher on a lithium fire.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says that “… there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

But then, Lord Henry never heard of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Last time I boarded a flight, they were talking about this ’phone:

“For safety reasons we don’t permit any model of the Galaxy Note 7 to be carried on board. If you’re carrying this device, please tell a member of the cabin crew.”

There are signs at check-in. There is coverage in magazines, on websites, on TV and radio. This is the kind of publicity that even Gerald Ratner would choke on.

Detail from the Emirates airline website

Detail from the front page at – the wrong kind of publicity

Launched on August 19th 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 was Samsung’s flagship mobile, and its specifications were impressive. Just five days later came news of a Galaxy Note 7 exploding, in South Korea. By the end of the month they had delayed shipments to South Korean carriers, although the next day the product launched in China. (Presumably this reflects a belief that the bad batteries were all to be found in a particular batch, rather than any belief that Chinese customers are inherently more fireproof or more expendable than Korean ones.)

Just a day later, Samsung announced the global recall of 2½ million ’phones, although at this stage it was voluntary. On October 6th a Southwest Airlines flight was evacuated due to smoke from a Galaxy Note 7, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to instruct passengers not to turn on or charge the ill-fated ’phone – nor to stow it in cargo. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission urged Galaxy Note 7 users to cease using their phones, and carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile withdrew them from sale.

After a series of fires in replacement devices – those that had been subjected to additional inspections and quality control measures – Samsung finally threw in the towel, suspending production of the product and then announcing its end. The withdrawal of the Galaxy Note 7 left a highly unusual gap in the market because Samsung’s rivals commonly avoid bringing out competitor products at the same time of year, so customers who received a refund had relatively few options to spend their money on. Meanwhile, Apple’s share price surged, despite a recent lukewarm reception for their latest iPhone – a device most notable for the unpopular decision to remove the headphone socket.

Part of the problem here is the very personal nature of mobile ’phones: you put a lot of personal information on them including passwords and banking details; you store photos of your loved ones; you expect people to be able to reach you; you learn your way around the quirky operating system. Nobody wants to have to delete all their personal information and preferences, and give them up. Your ’phone is closer to you, for longer, than your loved ones – and you probably sleep with it on the nightstand. The idea that it might have harmed you, and that it will be taken from you – not because you broke it or lost it but because it’s no good – that feels like a betrayal. It seems that Samsung will continue to feel the effects of this problem for a long time to come.

On Supply Chain Radio they said that the times we live in magnify Samsung’s woes, because of the perils of social media. Certainly, there have been some great jokes about Samsung’s plight (see below) but I think our interconnected age actually makes it much simpler to handle a problem of this kind. For one thing, all Galaxy Note 7 users are online, by definition: they could be reached with a message about a product recall. Contrast that with the old days, when the manufacturer of a defective car would have to take out advertisements in newspapers, to tell the world how crappy their cars were. The new approach is free, and it’s accurately targeted: it need not scare off potential customers.

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7 [twitter user Marcianotech]

There is also the option of a software patch, delivered over the airwaves, to fix problems. Samsung tried a patch that would limit charging to 60% of capacity… but their ’phones kept on melting down, all the same.

Even when a fix can’t be achieved remotely, at least the connected nature of the surviving Galaxy Note 7’s offers a way to ensure compliance with the recall: presumably it would be simple enough to send out a software update that forces a shutdown – and once your smartphone has become a novelty paperweight (warning: keeping it near paper is probably a mistake) most users will be persuaded to swap it for something that works.

So, are all those defective telephones going to be remanufactured? No. Samsung has announded they will destroy all the returned ’phones. Given that the device sold for something like US$850, that’s an awful waste, but we’re now looking at a product that must be treated as hazardous. It can no longer be transported by air, or carried in the post. This leaves returned Galaxy Note 7’s scattered, rendering remanufacture uneconomical. Presumably, some recycling can still take place, if only to  salvage some of the more valuable metals – but almost all of the effort that went into making these ingenious devices is wasted.

Samsung Galaxy S7, burnt

Nothing beats that new gadget smell…

When Apple laptops were found to have hazardous batteries in 2006, they were quick to point out that the batteries in question had been made by Sony. Samsung has no such luxury: the Korean giant’s batteries were made by a subsidiary. Also, the remedy for Apple’s older laptops was relatively simple because the battery was removable. Samsung only recently switched over to a sealed in battery – presumably for reasons of waterproofing – and this has magnified their pain.

According to Credit Suisse, Samsung will have have lost nearly US$17 billion in revenue as a result of these problems.

Efforts to pack still more energy into a smaller, lighter devices continue.

The Place Where an Ape is a Bee

We just had a holiday in Italy, where one of the things we always do is play “Spot the Ape”. If you’re familiar with Italy you will have seen the tiny three-wheeled vans and pickups made by Piaggio, and if you’re familiar with Italian you’re probably itching to tell me that it’s not an ape, but an apé. (Tell that to Wikipedia…)

It’s a key difference, because in Italian ‘apé’ means ‘bee’. These funny little vehicles were the worker-bees that laboured to reconstruct Italy’s postwar economy at a time when few could afford a conventional commercial vehicle. The famous Vespa (‘wasp’) scooter had arrived in 1946, an innovative mobility solution for a country with finances that were every bit as ruinous as the roads: a year later, aeronautical engineer Corradino D’Ascanio (1891–1981) adapted his Vespa, giving it two rear wheels and a box for cargo. The Apé was born.

Early Apé with no cab, seen in a museum.

In the wild, Apés never look as clean nor as well cared for. [Image: Flickr user “monkeyhel”]

The Apé was just about perfect for its time and place. In the 50cc variant, the Apé didn’t need a registration number and driving one didn’t require a license – rather like the arrangements in France with the VSP or voiture sans permis rules for microcars. Even the most powerful Apés in the early years had only a 125cc engine so it was never going to set any speed records, but low gearing made it ideal for hauling loads up the steep streets found in so many Italian hilltop towns. Its small size made it perfect for negotiating narrow lanes and tight bends, and for parking in awkward spots while making deliveries.

Apé Pentaro with a baby elephant on board.

If three wheels wasn’t enough for you, there was the Pentaro variant…

1956 was a significant year for the Apé. The model C finally lost its Vespa-style saddle and acquired a car-like seat. They also offered an Apé with an enclosed cab for the first time, and an electric starter was an option. (Hold out until 1964 and you could even get one with a heater in the cab. To this day, a steering wheel remains an optional extra: most have handlebars.) The vehicle was diverging from its Vespa heritage, but it remained an affordable alternative to a conventional van. People did all kinds of quirky things with the Apé… and they still do. If you see one in the UK, the driver is almost certainly selling artisan coffee – but in Italy they were used by people in trades of all kinds.

A 1963 model Apé

A 1963 model Apé. What’s not to love?

The Apé is being made under license in India; I’ve seen them used as airport runabouts in Dar Es Salaam, and they’re popular in Portugal, too. Although auto rickshaws (‘tuk-tuks’) are found in dozens of countries, most aren’t Apés, and are nothing to do with Italy. Even so, these three-wheelers are a practical format that won’t go away.

It appears that the Apé is becoming a rarity in modern Italy, and that’s a shame for those of us that always look out for them. (Bonus points for an Apé with two people squeezed into the cab together.) The disappearance of the Apé is a sign of progress, of a kind: people can afford four wheels instead of three, and the traffic moves a bit faster than it used to, at least in between towns: in urban areas we all crawl at the same speed. I can’t help wondering if there isn’t an Apé-shaped space in our modern logistics networks. Any of the light vans that call at my house to deliver small packages could be replaced with an Apé. (Preferably an electric-powered Apé that departs with a hum instead of a puff of exhaust smoke, but… whatever.) So many of the things that get hauled that final mile are lightweight packages: it’s absurd, but instead of picking things up while I’m at the supermarket, I save money by getting all my toiletries from an online retailer – despite the obvious cost of delivery to my door. Some people are doing the same thing with groceries, and it’s only a matter of time before most of us decide that it’s cheaper to cut Sainsbury’s (etc.) out of the loop.

And then? Perhaps the world is ready for a resurgence of the Apé.

Ape panel van

Faster than a Speeding Bullet

I was doing a bit of teaching recently, and we turned to discussing speed of delivery as a basis for competition. We watched one of the Next TV advertisements where they promise next-day delivery (subject to some fine print) and show off what appears to be a somewhat fictionalised supply chain.

See what you think of the implausibly shiny supply chain, where the chosen dress is apparently untouched by human hands, automatically wrapped on demand before being whisked on its way to the customer along roads that feature no other traffic, just a fleet of modern and clean Next delivery trucks.

Hmm. And yet this is a good strategy for online retail. You can’t really advertise the quality of the fabric, because the buyer can’t touch it. You can’t offer alterations or made-to-measure flexibility, because you can’t touch the customer. So what does that leave? Price-based competition is always going to hurt… so speed is the logical choice. Next day delivery (six days a week, subject to stock and courier availability, as the weasel words at the bottom of the screen explain) is an impressive thing to deliver.

Amazon went one better, and moved towards same-day delivery, in some cities… and then they went better still, if speed is your thing, with ‘Prime Now’, for one-hour delivery.

Stephen Armstrong for the Guardian was unimpressed when he tried ‘Prime Now’ in June 2015, finding the website glitchy and ultimately failing to get the goods. A little over three months later, Steve Myall for the Mirror got a delivery of groceries in 39 minutes. (Regular readers of Capacify might find their hackles rising at Myall’s statement, “Everything was in a paper bag so no environmental concerns.”) There was a minimum spend, and the cost of delivery was £6.99 plus an optional-but-included-as-standard £2 tip for the person making the delivery.

Andrew Hill for the Financial Times drew a valuable historical comparison with Victorian efforts to achieve fast and cheap parcel delivery services in London, concluding that the same factors that caused the London Penny Parcel Delivery and Automatic Advertising Company to disappear without trace are still in force.

Now, there’s always the risk of being proved wrong, but I think that the pursuit of speed has gone about as far as it can go. The logistic control and coordination required for same day delivery are impressive – even amazing – but if ‘within an hour or two’ becomes the new norm, it’s no longer a basis for competition: it’s just a qualifier. That leaves companies with additional expense to recoup, while chasing the same business as everybody else… unless this spells the end of the high street, and the market town.

Beverley, Yorkshire

Does same-day delivery spell the end of the British high street?

Is that a good thing? Is this what citizens want?

Then there’s the big rival: delivery at the speed of light. When I was a teenager, I’d occasionally buy computer games by mail, so as to save money. The first few cheques I wrote were all for mail order computer games, and the advertisements always advised the customer to “allow 28 days for delivery”, which led to a lot of wistful days spent waiting for the postman to come. Nowadays, if I wanted a computer game it would come from an ‘app store’, no disk or postage required. As soon as I click ‘buy’, the download can begin.

Computer game on cassette

Back in the days when it took six minutes to load 48K of data off a cassette, it took up to four weeks to get the cassette in the post.

I told my students that there was once a plan to deliver post by guided missile. That got a laugh, but it’s entirely true. Some research (and this excellent history by Duncan Geere) revealed that rocket mail has actually been attempted quite a few times, over the years. There were proposals to use artillery for postal delivery as early as 1810, and later in the century Congreve rockets were used in an experimental postal application in Tonga, although the residents ultimately floated their post on the sea instead (just as the people of St Kilda did). Then there was Herman Oberth (1894 – 1989) the rocket enthusiast who advocated rocket mail from 1927. Countries experimenting with rockets for post in the 1930s included Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, India and the United States.

This business of pyrotechnic postage appears to have been common enough to give us a new word: astrophilately, meaning stamp-collecting relating to post that has travelled via rockets and missiles. Honestly!

Cover flown on space shuttle mission STS-8 and sold to the public after landing.

Astrophilately. All the cool kids are doing it.

This was in no way a precursor to the web-based e-mail called ‘RocketMail’, originating in 1996 and subsequently bought out by the ill-fated Yahoo, although perhaps with they were trying to achieve a blend of retro-cool and futuristic.

Meanwhile, things had got serious. In June 1959, a Regulus cruise missile containing mail in place of a warhead was launched by a Navy submarine, the USS Barbero. US Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield witnessed its arrival, commenting: “before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

Let’s not smirk too much at the Postmaster General: we have the unfair advantage of hindsight – and it was nice to see a cruise missile employed in such a ‘swords to ploughshares’ fashion: for the next five years, the Regulus missiles carried by the USS Barbero and her sisters constituted the US Navy’s nuclear deterrent force.

Regulus cruise missile launch

USS Barbero’s twin, the USS Tunny, launching a Regulus cruise missile. The Navy called their first and only postal experiment ‘Missile Mail’.

One organisation that needs a different kind of missile mail is NATO: a Hellfire missile that had been employed during a recent training exercise in Spain was due to be returned to Florida via Paris Charles de Gaulle… where they mistakenly loaded it on an Air France flight to Havana, Cuba. If you’ve ever felt that sinking sensation when your ball goes over the fence and you realise you’re going to have to go next-door and ask the grumpy old man if you can have it back, you will sympathise with the United States military.

Ultimately, it may be that Missile Mail was impractical for the same reason that Concorde never caught on: not because there was no need for something that quick, but because it wasn’t fast enough when compared to the speed of light: telexes, e-mail, telephone and videoconferencing, instead of physical post and physical presence.

Yet Amazon, and others, are said to be experimenting with delivery by drones: pilotless machines that rely upon much the same guidance technology as missiles. Perhaps, once again, “we stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”

And you know how well that worked out, last time.

A Very Peculiar Patent

I’ll be off to Malaysia for a teaching commitment tomorrow. I frequently enjoy the comfort of an Emirates A380, but boarding the aircraft is not an appealing part of the journey.

At Manchester Airport, A380s always depart from Gate 12, where the ‘holding pen’ for passengers isn’t really big enough for the superjumbo, despite the addition of a funny little overflow room. I’ve never yet seen any evidence that the good people at Manchester Airport actually know how to get everyone aboard an Airbus A380 in a timely manner, and their efforts can get a little bit frantic as the time of departure draws near.

That’s where a recent patent for Airbus (filed in February 2013 and approved in November last year) comes to the rescue. Patent US 9,193,460, catchily titled “Method for Boarding and Unloading of Passengers of an Aircraft with Reduced Immobilization Time of the Aircraft, Aircraft and Air Terminal for its Implementation”, proposes a detachable cabin module that passengers would be able to board before the inbound aircraft arrives at the gate. The outbound pod takes the place of the inbound pod and as soon as the aircraft has refuelled it’s up, up and away. Cleverly, pods may have a different configuration, such as altering the blend between economy and business class seating. 

Airbus modular aircraft

An illustration from the Airbus modular aircraft concept [US patent 9,193,460]

It’s to be hoped that the removable pod concept allows better cabin cleaning than present day efforts, too.

Higher aircraft utilisation is the best way to achieve profit. It’s one reason why low-cost airlines managed to run rings around their full-service counterparts in the 1990s, remaining profitable while charging a fraction of the ticket price. Put simply, an aircraft doesn’t earn money while it’s on the ground, so airlines are looking to minimise the turn-around time: hence the Airbus patent.

As ideas go, passenger pods aren’t really all that new. Back in March 1960, Mechanix Illustrated ran a cover story that showed a passenger module detaching from a doomed airliner, with parachutes streaming behind it. “Escape pods can prevent needless air crash death,” the article announced.

Mechanix Illustrated cover

Mechanix Illustrated cover,  March 1960

Internal arrangement of escape pods, Mechanix Illustrated

Tough luck if you were visiting the galley or the washroom at the moment of separation, by the way.

There was also the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane (or, for the military, the CH-54 Tarhe), a helicopter that could carry a variety of cargo pods. It first flew in 1962.

S-64 Skycrane / CH-54 Tarhe

S-64 Skycrane / CH-54 Tarhe

Far from being outdone, Boeing recently came up with a monstrous freighter that could be taxied into place above a row of shipping containers, after which it would squat down into place like a hen settling on a clutch of eggs. US 9,205,910 is dated December 8th of last year.

Aircraft designed for intermodal containers in transverse orientation. [US patent 9,205,910]

Aircraft designed for intermodal containers in transverse orientation. [US patent 9,205,910]

Too bad that the most famous pod-swapping modular aircraft of them all had arrived way back in 1964, albeit only in a TV show…

Thunderbird 2

Thunderbird 2 and a selection of pods.

There really is nothing new under the Sun, is there? Well, it worked for Malcom P. McLean, back in the 1950s, when he was looking for a more efficient way to load and unload freight from ships… so why can’t the “box that changed the world” also work for air transport?

Of course, if Manchester Airport won’t invest in decent facilities to accommodate five hundred passengers in comfort while they wait to board an A380, they certainly aren’t going to invest in a special gantry that lifts tubes full of people and clips them into aircraft… which renders the Airbus thing a little bit pointless.

Airport terminal equipped with pod swapping machinery

Airport operators are going to love paying for all this extra infrastructure… [Airbus illustration from US patent 9,193,460]

Meanwhile, perhaps the neatest idea to cut turn-around times was the flip-up cinema-style aircraft seat. If fitted on the seats adjacent to the aisle, it meant that the passenger need not hold up everybody else while he or she tries to get organised before sitting down.

Those haven’t seen the light of day, either.

A Book Report

What should have been a bit of light reading during the holidays turned out to be less recreational and more like my day job, when I selected ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ by John Ironmonger. I had no idea it would have so much to say about supply chain resilience.

Joe Haak is a city analyst, working for a department that specialises in short selling: profiting from the decline in a company’s share price. He leads a team developing a computer program that monitors the news media in order to predict the market consequences of reported events. It works remarkably well, allowing them to find many profitable ‘shorts’, but one of the bank’s partners demands that he use the software to discover something else:

How will civilisation end?

Over the course of several meetings with the doomsaying partner Lew Kaufmann, Joe learns that civilisation is surprisingly fragile… and that it all hinges upon effective supply chain management.

Have a look at this excerpt from the book:

“How do you feed a city of ten million people, Joe? How many lorry-loads of food do you need every day? How much fuel?’ He turned to the younger man. ‘How do you feed London? Who organises it all?”

“I don’t suppose anyone does.”

Lew Kaufmann was nodding. “Quite right. Nobody does. It works because of a hundred thousand supply chains. Because thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning, and the morning before, planting and harvesting and packaging and transporting, flour and sugar and cocoa and coffee and a great long list of foods and fuels and machine parts and devices. We know this, don’t we, Joe? We know this because that is what we do, you and I. We follow the supply chains, looking for weaknesses.”

“We do,” Joe said.

“Have you ever been to a mega-city, Joe?” Kaufmann turned away from the window and sank back into his chair. He didn’t wait for an answer. “Of course you have. London is a mega-city now. Twelve million people, but we’re way down the list. There are twenty-five cities bigger than London now. Rio is bigger. Lagos is bigger. Tokyo has almost thirty-five million citizens. I once sat in a traffic jam in Jakarta trying to get to the airport. There are twenty-five million people in Jakarta, Joe. How many of them do you think keep a larder?”

“Not many, I should imagine.”

“No. I don’t suppose they do. There are half a billion people living in mega-cities now, and most of them live pretty hand to mouth. Even here in London. What happens, Joe, when the supply chains fail? What will happen when twenty million people in Guangzhou or Cairo or Tehran or Paris begin to starve?”

“I’ve never really thought about it.”

“Not many people do.” Kaufmann gave a long whistling sigh.

The troubling thing about this chain of reasoning is that I can’t actually find anything wrong with it.

In the book, the ‘perfect storm’, that disrupts our global supply chains and threatens to bring about a new dark age is a combination of two factors, a flu pandemic and a disruption in the oil supply. Kaufmann is particularly scathing about oil:

“It is the craziest thing in human history, Joe. We’ve built the greatest society that mankind has ever known – a global society. We communicate across continents, we think nothing of jumping on an airliner for a meeting in Zurich or Seattle or Shanghai. And yet all of this, everything we have created, rests upon a finite fluid resource that we’re busy burning away.”

It’s not just the expenditure of oil for jet fuel that bothers these men, modelling the end of the world: it’s the difficulties that agriculture faces, without oil. Farmers can’t grow food, they can’t harvest it, and whatever diminished quantity they manage to produce can’t be transported before it spoils.

Again, the logic is faultless. In fact the hardest thing to believe in the whole book is how sensible and cohesive the people in the story are. I suspect that elsewhere things will have been a lot uglier – but ‘Not Forgetting The Whale’ isn’t about that grim struggle. It’s a very gentle, British take on the ‘prepper’ mindset.

An array of ‘prepper’ tools

A ‘prepper’ toolkit. (What, nothing for use against zombies?)

Nonetheless, we are assured that anarchy ensues.

“… the instinct for survival won’t recognise that the man people are mugging in the street for his last litre of fuel is a driver distributing food. No one will stop to ask if the woman they just robbed of her last loaf is an engineer in a power plant.”

Again, I can’t fault the logic. (I really have to write about the Tragedy of the Commons sometime…) Nothing in this world is worth any more than a person is prepared to pay for it, and what we are prepared to pay is dependent upon everything else still being in demand. I’ve seen farming areas where the principal crop is mustard: that’s fine while transport is working and trade can happen, but if trade is interrupted, you can’t exactly eat the mustard yourself, can you? (Well, not much of it…)

Mustard crop

Mustard. It’s what’s for dinner.

Economies of scale make money, but perhaps they’ve built a kind of fragility into 21st century supply chains, of a kind that we didn’t have to worry about years ago. Another threat, overshadowing that of running out of food, and even the global pandemic, is simply other people.

“Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) observed. Hungry people: desperate people. And what will you do when they come calling?

Kaufmann and family head for the Azores on a yacht, while Joe seeks refuge (apparently at random) in the fictional village of St Piran, Cornwall, where he uses his life savings (and his knowledge of what’s about to happen) to build up a secret stockpile of foodstuffs, while the modern world collapses slowly, but inexorably.

Joe’s store of food is enough to provide for the village for several months, and the villagers use an excavator to block the single road into the village… but where do twelve million Londoners go? We don’t learn their fate, since this is a character-driven book about the people living in a small Cornish fishing village, and as such it works well.

It isn’t a textbook on supply chain resilience. That’s just a happy accident… but it makes one wonder just how perilous the situation could be. Truth through fiction – and reference to Thomas Hobbes’ (1651) ‘Leviathan’, with its discourse on the social contract, and the role of the state in preventing anarchy.

“… by the time you finish reading there might be a few more tins of beans in your cupboard than there were when you started,” wrote one reviewer at GoodReads.

Businesses know all about safety stocks, and maybe it’s time for us to bring the same thinking home. That “few more tins of beans” needn’t be a financial burden on the household, if bought in bulk and rotated properly. Money might actually be saved…

Or, there’s the alternative. Choosing to believe that “thousands of people in two hundred countries get up in the morning and do exactly what they did yesterday morning,” … every day, for the rest of your life.