Arriving Today: Book Review
From Factory to Front Door -- Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy
I heard about Arriving Today on a podcast, and knew I had to add it to the list of books to read and discuss. The supply chain was a huge theme of 2021, and will likely continue to be so.
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But how much do we understand about it? How do items we order make it from the factory to our front porch? And what about all the people and technology involved in that process?
Christopher Mims asked those same questions and extensively covered the process in the book. So let’s dive in to what it’s about and what we can learn.
Fast delivery of our online orders has become the expectation. If we see shipping that takes longer than a few days, it feels like a huge inconvenience. We’ve grown accustomed to getting the things we want on demand. Which may seem simple, but is the culmination of the greatest innovations of our time.
Of course, not all of this is positive. As Arriving Today points out, we’ve turned our world into a factory, and we’re all workers in that factory. Which can be a depressing thought, since factory work isn’t always that great.
But understanding how things get to us matters as much as how those things are made. Which is the key point of the book.
The process starts with items leaving factories, most of which are in East Asia. Items are loaded into large shipping containers and loaded onto ships. Once they reach their destination, they are unloaded at the docks and then moved to trucks. Items are transported by truck across the country, to distribution centers. Items are then separated and sent on to fulfillment centers, which are where they are available to order. Once an item has been ordered, it’s packaged and sent on to a sortation center which will either have delivery stations or send it on to a delivery station where it will get onto the right truck or car for delivery to our homes.
All along the way in this process, there is a vast amount of technology, automation, and human interaction. And it keeps getting more complex. And often worse for the people involved.
So what can we learn from the process and from the book?
3 Key Lessons
Automation is Growing
From the beginning to the end, parts of the transportation process are automated and are growing more automated all the time.
Ships have had autopilot since the days of the Titanic, though there are still many parts of ships that require humans.
Ports are becoming more automated as well. Humans still operate ship-to-shore cranes, since there are too many variables to automate. And 97 percent of shipyards aren’t automated. But automation in shipyards is growing, with robots transporting and moving containers constantly in order to have them ready for truckers.
Trucks are in the early stages of self-driving automation, with the potential to see real self-driving trucks in the coming years.
Factories are growing more and more automated. There are certain tasks that humans are better at, like grabbing items out of bins, but many other parts of the warehouse are becoming automated, like robots transporting items and highlighting locations.
And eventually we may even see automated delivery. I know I’ve been waiting for drones to deliver packages, but there are small delivery robots that are already working across college campuses and office parks, making food deliveries.
All this is to say that as our demand for stuff grows, and our desire to have those things quickly delivered also grows, we will continue to turn to automation and robots. We can expect humans to be slowly replaced in factories and transport, but will continue to need more people creating the robots and algorithms that drive the automation. And probably in other places as well. Even as automation has grown, Amazon has hired tens of thousands of new workers to keep up. So where will the work of tomorrow be? Certainly in the technology, but probably in other places as well as we demand more and more.
Incentives and Focus Matter
It probably goes without saying, but we’ll say it anyway—incentives matter.
People all along the supply chain continue to get squeezed. Every trucking company has an incentive for speed, and often that comes at the expense of their drivers, who are pushed to the limit to get shipments to warehouses on time. Every online retailer has an incentive for speed, and that often pushes factory workers to the limit to pull and package items faster to keep up with their robot counterparts. It’s the same story for delivery drivers, who are expected to make all their deliveries on time and sometimes may hurt themselves or others trying to achieve that.
I’ve praised Amazon several times for their way of working and innovation. But they rightly deserve criticism here for their lack of focus on employees in warehouses and delivery. The focus on the customer is great, but shouldn’t come at the expense of the people doing the work in fulfillment centers and delivery vans.
When the sole focus is on getting an item to a customer in a day, the incentives can become misaligned for everyone else. If we only measure based on delivery speed, we can hurt everyone along the way who has to make that happen.
We can see this with any metric or incentive. If we only care about new users in our apps, we may make choices that optimize for new users while abandoning existing users, which can cause significant churn. So we have to create the right focus and incentives along the whole path, not just for a single part.
As we try to keep up with demand and get packages to our doors faster and faster, what will the future look like?
Amazon and other retailers seem to be fine with high turnover in their warehouses, relatively unconcerned with the long-term physical and psychological effects the work has on the people. And that’s hundreds of thousands of our fellow humans. We should care, because taking productive people and running them into the ground after a few years is bad for society, as the book points out in many instances.
And what about the technology? It’s difficult to say where all the technology will take us, from our algorithms to our robots. But we should think long term about the affects all this will have and what we can do to prepare.
I’m generally optimistic about innovation and new technology, since it is an amoral tool, and we get to decide how to use it. But we have to decide well. We can continue to use robots and algorithms to drive efficiency, but it has to be for the welfare of those of us ordering the packages, and those people all along the chain who make it happen.
Arriving Today is an excellent deep-dive into our supply chain. Getting items from factories to our door is massively complex, and understanding the process feels like it is only going to get more important.
If I had a criticism, it would be that the book dives into extensive detail of some tangential topics, which are quite interesting, especially if you haven’t read about them before (things like Taylorism and components in computers), but then feels like it misses the big picture of warehouses. I still found myself confused about what was happening at each warehouse (from distribution to fulfillment to sorting) and had to do some additional research just to clarify the high-level process.
Overall, though, this is a must read for anyone who orders stuff online and is interested in how automation and technology will contribute to our lives in the future (which I assume is all of us).
Other Good Links
What AI could be like when you plug a computer into your brain (article - The Next Web) - Really interesting sci-fi stuff here. I’m intrigued and scared, but that’s what makes it so fascinating.
Creating artificial intelligence by combining fundamentally different elements (biological tissues and an electronic system), we will be able to achieve the maximum effect of emergence (the birth of new properties that are not inherent in the combined elements separately).
Biotechnological symbiosis will have properties unattainable for a biological brain and a computer system separately.
The Subversive Genius of Extremely Slow Email (article - The Atlantic) - I freaking love this. Make email resemble actual postal mail. Slow it down and get enough headspace that you can do meaningful work without so many interruptions. It is how I generally choose to communicate anyway, but I like the structure.
You compose a message and put it in an outbox; once a day (you can choose morning, afternoon, or evening “pickups”), Pony picks up your outbound dispatches and delivers your inbounds. That’s it. It’s postal-service cosplay. It’s slow email
Building Better Products by Learning From Successes and Failures: A Conversation with Ed Vincent (podcast - Product by Design) - As a long-time entrepreneur, Ed has built a number of companies and businesses, and seen what works and what doesn't. Learning from his time at MoviePass (along with his experience in software and live events), Ed has launched festivalPass, a festival subscription service for live events. We dive into lessons learned, using data well, the power of discovery, the creator economy, and what the future may bring.