On the weekend preceding 2 December 2013, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced plans to use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles — aka drones — to deliver packages to online shoppers, cutting delivery times to 30 minutes. Like many people, I found this idea great.
Amazon’s plan to use drones is self-admittedly futuristic. Retail Systems Research, Reuters and many others have given several reasons why delivery-drones might not get off the ground.
— S.Ketharaman (@s_ketharaman) December 4, 2013
I don’t agree. Amazon can make the R&D investments and pull off the political lobbying required to overcome the obstacles in front of drone delivery.
If it wishes to, that is.
This is where I’ve a slightly different take on Amazon’s announcement, timed as it was a day or two before 2 December (The significance of this date will become obvious pretty soon in case you haven’t already figured it out).
When I thought back to the video about PrimeAir – as Amazon has branded the drone delivery service – I remember seeing an orange jumpsuited man placing the package into a conveyor belt in a warehouse, or fulfillment center as Amazon calls it.
I was wondering, why isn’t a robot doing the grunt work?
After all, robots have been used in warehouses for over a decade. I remember a leading Swiss retailer who had bought my company’s ERP package in 2000 asked us to build an interface between our inventory module and its existing robotic system. In fact, ease of integration was one of the main reasons why the company chose our product. But, I digress.
The point is, if Amazon were seriously planning to deploy drones in a futuristic scenario like delivery, wouldn’t you expect the company to showcase a tried-and-tested use case like picking and packing using robots? Would a drive for operational excellence not include grabbing such a low hanging fruit for cost reduction, especially since the etailer operates on wafer-thin margins?
That’s when it struck me that there’s nothing cool about using robots in warehouses.
On the other hand, showing a drone making delivery of an online order is a major ‘aha’ moment. And it worked brilliantly. Made on the eve of Cyber Monday, the announcement got Amazon to the front page of print, TV and online media on the busiest day of online shopping.
Nothing wrong with a PR stunt from time to time but credit where credit is due – a stroke of marketing genius shouldn’t be confused for execution innovation.