Posts tagged with "Logistics":

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Amazon may have canceled its NYC headquarters, but its footprint is everywhere

For many of the people opposed to Amazon establishing a second headquarters (HQ2) in Queens, New York, casting the company into total exile was never the point. At its heart, opposition lay with the terms of the deal that wooed the company—its massive tax incentives, the process that had created the deal (without input or oversight from the New York City Council or local communities), and the dramatic impact such a real estate development project would have on the city's working class, especially by aggravating its gentrification and displacement crises. Facing a groundswell of local opposition, Amazon announced that it had canceled its plans for a new Queens campus on February 14, just three months after announcing its selection. While HQ2's optics and scale made it a legible enemy to rally against, Amazon's less splashy development projects have already become part of the fabric of many cities, including New York. Taking inventory of Amazon’s existing physical footprint in the city, one begins to perceive a shadow infrastructure at work which reshapes urban environments more through privatized logistics and information systems than through campus construction. In Manhattan, Amazon’s physical presence might best be recognized in retail. It was at the company’s 34th Street bookstore that protestors demonstrated on Cyber Monday following the HQ2 announcement. Indeed, like HQ2, the company’s retail stores serve as useful rallying points. But inside the same Midtown Manhattan building that hosts the bookstore sits a more explicit locus of Amazon’s presence: a 50,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center for the company’s Prime Now delivery service. It might be helpful to state here what Amazon actually is: a logistics company misrepresented as a retail company misrepresented as a tech company. Over time, the types of products the company sells have expanded beyond books and bassinets into less obviously tangible commodities like data (via Amazon Web Services), labor (via Amazon Mechanical Turk), and “content” (via Twitch and Amazon Studios productions). Ultimately the company’s appeal isn’t so much in the stuff it provides but the efficiency with which it provides stuff. Computation is obviously an important part of running a logistics operation, but Amazon’s logistical ends are frequently obscured by the hype around its technical prowess. And while Amazon is increasingly in the game of making actual things, a lot of them are commodities that, in the long run, enable the movement of other commodities: Amazon Echos aren’t just nice speakers, they’re a means of streamlining the online shopping experience into verbal commands and gathering hundreds of thousands of data points. Producing award-winning films and TV shows gives the company a patina of cultural respectability, but streaming them on Amazon Prime gets more people on Amazon and, in theory, buying things using Amazon Prime accounts. Amazon’s logistical foundation is most blatantly visible in the company's nearly 900 warehouses located around the world. Currently, the company has one fulfillment center (FC) in New York City. The 855,000-square-foot site in Staten Island opened in fall 2018 and had already earned Amazon $18 million in tax credits from the state of New York before the HQ2 deal was announced. Additionally, a month before the HQ2 announcement, Amazon had also signed a ten-year lease for a new fulfillment center in Woodside, Queens. The same day that Amazon vice president Brian Huseman testified before the New York City Council about HQ2, Staten Island warehouse employees and organizers from the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) announced a plan to form a union at the Staten Island FC, citing exhausting and unsafe working conditions better optimized for warehouse robots than employees. These conditions are far from unique to Staten Island—stories about the grueling pace, unhealthy environment, and precarity of contract workers at fulfillment centers have been reported regularly as far back as 2011. And yet, when the Staten Island FC was first announced in 2017, a small handful of media outlets made note of this record. Unions and community leaders weren’t galvanized against the Staten island FC the way they were by HQ2 or the way they had been when Wal-Mart attempted to come to New York in 2011. In some ways, the HQ2 debacle gave new life and momentum to an organized labor challenge previously hidden in plain sight (or at least in the outer boroughs). Of course, Amazon’s logistics spaces aren’t solely confined to far-flung corners of the New York metro area: There are two Prime Now distribution hubs in New York, one in Brooklyn and the other at the previously mentioned Midtown Manhattan location. Same-day delivery service Prime Now originated from that Midtown warehouse in 2014 and spawned Amazon Flex, an app-based platform for freelance delivery drivers to distribute Prime Now packages. (Ironically, one of the reasons Amazon has been able to become so effectively entrenched in the city is because of this kind of contingent labor force—any car in New York City can become an Amazon Flex delivery vehicle, any apartment a Mechanical Turker workplace.) The art of logistics also depends in part on the art of marketing. To support that marketing endeavor, Amazon has a 40,000-square-foot photo studio in a former glass manufacturing plant in Williamsburg that produces tens of thousands of images for Amazon Fashion, the company's online apparel venture. The company's forays into fashion, while less publicized, may also position it to become one of the largest retailers of clothing in the world. New York is also home to 260 Amazon Lockers: pickup and package return sites for select products typically located in 7-Elevens and other bodega-like environments. Like Prime Now, the Lockers streamline and automate a process that would normally involve lines at the post office. First appearing in New York in 2011, the 6-foot-tall locker units can range between 6 and 15 feet wide, with the individual lockers in each unit capable of holding packages no larger than 19 x 12 x 14 inches (roughly larger than a shoebox). While early reports indicated that store owners received a small monthly stipend for hosting the lockers, the main sell for store owners is the possibility of luring in more foot traffic. But a 2013 Bloomberg article noted that smaller businesses were frustrated by the limited returns from installing the lockers and increased power bills (lockers use a digital passcode system, requiring electricity and connectivity). There is an irony in the fact that for almost a decade before the HQ2 debacle, small businesses have been ceding physical space to Amazon only to be stuck with monolithic storage spaces serving little direct benefit. Following its acquisition of Whole Foods in 2017, Amazon installed Lockers in all of the supermarket’s locations in the city. Whole Foods was already associated with gentrification and had an anti-union CEO before the Amazon acquisition; if anything, Amazon upped the ante by attempting to bring Whole Foods more in line with Amazon’s logistics-first approach. Reports that Amazon has plans to open a new grocery chain suggest that early speculation about the Whole Foods acquisition was correct: Amazon wasn’t interested in Whole Foods in order to sell produce so much as to gain access to the grocery company’s rich trove of retail data, which Amazon could use to jump-start its own grocery operations. A data-driven approach has been at the core of Amazon’s logistics empire: The company was one of the first to use recommendation algorithms to show consumers other products they might also like, and Prime Now relies extensively on purchasing data to determine what items to stock in hub warehouses. It’s unsurprising, then, that the most profitable wing of Amazon’s empire is Amazon Web Services (AWS), its cloud computing platform. AWS’s physical footprint in New York City is relatively small, with a handful of data centers within city limits. Its most visible presence may be the AWS Loft in Soho, which opened in 2015, part of a small network of similar spots in San Francisco, Tokyo, Johannesburg, and Tel Aviv.  Part coworking space for startups that use AWS and part training center for AWS products and services, the Loft inhabits a kind of in-between space between data services and marketing. The space is free for AWS users and is full of comfy seating and amenities like free coffee and snacks—ironic considering Amazon's reputation for being absent of the kinds of perks expected at tech companies. Belying its small spatial footprint, AWS is a major part of the city’s networked operations. The New York City Department of Transportation and the New York Public Library are both presented as model case studies of successful AWS customers, and AWS has signed contracts with multiple city agencies, including the Departments of Education and Sanitation and the City Council as far back as 2014. AWS is also a major vendor to municipal, state, and federal agencies—and, increasingly, has come under scrutiny for its multimillion-dollar contracts with data mining company Palantir Technologies, which works with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to track and deport migrants, and for peddling its face recognition technology to police departments across the country. Some of the criticism of Amazon's campus deal with NYC came from New York City Council members, apparently unaware their office was paying Amazon for hosting web support. To be fair, New York City’s AWS contracts (including the City Council’s) are a fraction of the kind of revenue Amazon is vying for in federal defense contracts. And at this point, AWS is the industry standard upon which most of the internet runs. The situation reflects the depth to which Amazon has insinuated itself as a fundamental infrastructure provider. New York may have dodged a gentrification bullet with HQ2, but as with so much of Big Tech, Amazon’s impact on cities might look more like death by a thousand paper cuts. A new campus might be more visible than the hidden machinery of a city increasingly reliant on delivery-based services, but both impact local economies, residents, and living conditions. Amazon’s long-standing logistics regime also inspires an infinitude of Amazon-inspired niche delivery startups familiar to New Yorkers as a pastel monoscape of subway ads hawking mattresses, house cleaning services, and roommates, to name just a few, along with the precarious jobs that are their defining characteristic. There have been continued efforts in New York to challenge Amazon’s frictionless logistics regime since the HQ2 withdrawal. Pending City Council legislation banning cashless retail would affect far more businesses than just Amazon’s brick-and-mortar operations (which have automatic app-based checkout), but it would certainly stymie any expansion of its physical retail footprint. State Senator Jessica Ramos has joined labor leaders in calling for a fair union vote at the future Woodside fulfillment center. These sorts of initiatives are often more drawn out and less galvanizing than those to halt a major campus development. But they’re crucial to a larger strategy for making the tech-enabled systems of inequality in cities visible. In 2019, the premise that the digital and physical worlds are mysteriously separate realms has been effectively killed by the tech industry’s measurable impact on urban life, from real estate prices to energy consumption. Comprehending the full impact of companies like Amazon on cities and seeing beyond their efforts to obscure or embellish their presence (glamour shots of data centers, anyone?) requires a full examination of these infrastructures outside of the companies' preferred terms. By demanding public accountability, New York's elected officials and community groups may have demonstrated the beginnings of just how to do that.
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What can architects learn from Walmart's fulfillment centers?

Architects are fascinated with infrastructure, or better yet, anxious about it. Infrastructure is far larger and more pervasive, blanketing the earth with its concrete and asphalt, yet it also threatens architecture with irrelevance. Infrastructural architecture is dangerous: The ubiquitous big box that houses warehouses, distribution centers, data centers, and processing plants is optimized to the point that architects are excluded. Perhaps because of this, condition studies of the big box and its implications have been wanting. Jesse LeCavalier’s The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment helps fill the void. As the title makes clear, LeCavalier focuses on the world’s largest retailer, Walmart, and how its overarching obsession with optimizing logistics manifests itself in built form. For those interested in the dangerous encounter of architecture and infrastructure, the book is worth reading. While LeCavalier’s book is an academic study, it eschews the empty and abstruse theorizing that has marked such recent efforts, producing the best book on architecture and infrastructure of this decade. The book is composed of five chapters bracketed by an introduction and conclusion: “Logistics,” which delineates LeCavalier’s thesis, followed by “Buildings,” “Locations,” “Bodies,” and “Territory,” each of which explores how Walmart embodies logistics in a different condition. Logistics, LeCavalier argues, has taken over from mass production and become the new organizational paradigm for our age. Where mass production was formed around relatively stable, physical forms of organization, logistics is ever mutable and contingent, constantly responding to the conditions it encounters. The built products of logistics embody this condition, with the stability of carefully designed envelopes giving way to what he calls “a constantly transforming network of calibrated and interconnected interiors.” It’s this point that’s crucial to those of us hoping to understand the “big box.” This term “big box,” LeCavalier points out, belies the complexity of the horizontal surfaces of floorplate and roof, which gives the building its infrastructural capacity to optimize throughput, notably by eliminating as much of the back area of the store as possible. In opposition to any idea of architecture as autonomous form, the exterior adapts to make the store tolerable whatever the local condition. LeCavalier painstakingly details case studies of the negotiations Walmart makes with local planning authorities and the resulting effect on the (endlessly mutable) building envelopes of its stores. LeCavalier observes that, in a paradoxical twist, form and building envelope take precedence at Walmart’s data centers since the rapid rate of change of digital technology ensures that those buildings need to be planned before a final layout can be envisioned. But to talk of Walmart’s data centers as formally intended is itself a paradox: The goal of these structures is to disappear through camouflage. At times I wanted the book to be more architectural—to have larger illustrations and in color. Recently many of University of Minnesota’s publications have given the impression of being published on demand by Blurb or Lulu and the squat format and the quality of the cover underscores this. But ultimately this allows the book to be more manual-like, more like the precipitation of information from a manual of logistics into physical form and that fits the subject matter well, so I can’t complain. More disappointing is that the drawings by LeCavalier, one of our most accomplished draughtsmen, are small and hard to read, but again this seems a decision of the press rather than the author. Moreover, had the book been a glossy architectural publication, it might have compromised the argument. Still, I wished to see LeCavalier brilliant analytic axonometric drawings included in some form. Perhaps a future publication will follow containing more of these.
The Rule of Logistics is an important book. For too long, what passes for the avant-garde has chased form for form’s sake, to embody the triumphant exuberance of the city and its neoliberal boosters. But last November, blue lost and red won, urban elites were undone by the heartland working class, the culture of Whole Foods shown up by that of Walmart. LeCavalier’s book, published some months before the election, underscores that the heartland is as permeated by the forces of the network as the urban center. The Rule of Logistics allows us to decode the spatial implications of this condition even as it suggests that architecture needs to learn from the architecture of the big box, much like it did from grain silos and factories in the early 20th century. Just as the election served as a wake-up call to well-intentioned urban liberals, The Rule of Logistics reminds architects that the most advanced work in the built domain is not in the city but in the sprawl outside it, that it’s not cool form but efficient logistical operations that pave the way to our future. The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment by Jesse LeCavalier University of Minnesota Press, $30.00 Kazys Varnelis is the director of the Network Architecture Lab and cofounder of AUDC, as well as the author of several books about infrastructure and network culture.
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Robotics and fulfillment centers are reshaping retail—and cities could be next

The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still-unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles from the most up-to-date radio. On the sidewalks…the remains of yesterday’s Leonia await the garbage truck. - Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

I just learned that my underwear, my mattress, and most of my wardrobe all came from the same place. I didn’t purchase them from a one-stop, big-box retailer, but from a no-stop, small-box room—my bedroom, to be specific (from my bed to be more precise). All I had to do was open up a web page, pick, click, and then wait as my underwear, my mattress, and most of my wardrobe were shipped from a warehouse located in a Massachusetts exurb to arrive at my doorstep in two days or fewer. The maker of this mundane miracle is a company called Quiet Logistics, a third part logistics (3PL) provider that helps online retailers like Mac Weldon, Bonobos, and Tuft & Needle reach customers as quickly as possible. They and companies like them, along with online retailer behemoth Amazon, are using new technologies to redefine retail and transform the architecture of fulfillment. And if they don’t bring about the birth of Skynet and the robot apocalypse first, they might also transform cities and towns across America.

Open up any newspaper (or newspaper app) and you’re likely to read an obituary for the shopping mall. While the reports of its death may be somewhat exaggerated, malls are indeed changing as more and more people buy, well, everything online. Some are being transformed into mixed-use “town center”-style developments; others are filling vacancies with new tenants who lean into recent consumer habits like “showrooming,” an industry term for trying on clothes in one store and then buying them online from another at a lower price. While showrooming may be the bane of many a salesperson, retailers like the aforementioned Bonobos design and build stores as showrooms: comfortable environments where customers find the right-size pants and then leave empty handed; two days later they’re delivered to their home. Any longer than that and customers might not be so quick to leave without those slim-fit chinos. Thanks to the proliferation of fulfillment centers, no one has to wait for anything anymore.

Fulfillment centers are massive warehouses where the ephemera of our lives is stored until we call upon it with a wave of our hand. The typical fulfillment center is a rectangular box built from precast concrete slabs or tilt-up concrete panels that are poured on-site and lifted into place. They range in size from 300,000 square feet to more than a million, feature hundreds of loading docks, 30-to-40-foot-tall-space-frame ceilings (cubic volume is key), and towers of nearly endless shelves containing rainbow Slinkys, Swiffer Wet Jets, Hello Kitty pencil cases, and literally everything else. “The picking towers are like mini-buildings, only without mechanical systems,” said architect Greg Lynn, who has visited two Amazon facilities and has long been interested in the formal and spatial possibilities presented by new technologies. “Then there are the massive sorting areas and areas where they compress boxes. It’s like a little world. Or a theme park.”

While large distribution centers aren’t new, the growth of online direct-to-consumer shopping has prompted a building boom of the fulfillment center. For better and worse, no company is better known for these buildings than Amazon, which has built more than one hundred fulfillment centers in America alone, totaling over 77 million square feet in size. Amazon uses a few different types of these centers, each designed to accommodate a specific type of item: small sortable items, large sortable times, large non-sortable, expensive specialty items, and apparel, as well as newer facilities designed for perishable and nonperishable food. Some are conventional centers, where products are picked and packaged by human pickers who can walk up to ten miles a day; some use mechanized conveyance and sorting systems; others are automated with robots handling most of the heavy lifting.

While Amazon is the standard-bearer for this new model of retail, it’s not alone. Logistics real estate is booming. Online retailers, 3PLs, and traditional big-box retailers like Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Target have all invested heavily in new fulfillment centers to more quickly reach online customers. Target’s online sales tripled from 2013 to 2016, and in that time it nearly doubled the amount of space dedicated to e-commerce with two new fulfillment centers totaling 1.7 million square feet. According to Colliers International, in 2016 e-commerce prompted the construction of 74 million square feet of new warehouse space in the United States, with 93 percent of that space occupied. Already this year is on track to deliver another 55 million square feet, according to research firm Reis Inc., with Dallas, Chicago, Kansas City, Central New Jersey, and San Bernardino, California, as the top markets, although warehouse construction is also booming in Atlanta and Indianapolis.

As with all things real estate, it’s about location. Many of these fulfillment centers are built on former farmlands in centralized locations with easy accessibility to highways and airports. For example, Quiet’s new facility in Hazelwood, Missouri—its first outside Massachusetts—is part of a larger development of fulfillment centers built near St. Louis, where ground shipments can reach anywhere in the United States in two or three days. Amazon initially followed a different tact, building its warehouses in locations selected to take advantage of state tax policies. But those policies have changed as the industry has grown and states have grown savvier. Since 2013, Amazon has focused on building smaller fulfillment centers closer to major urban areas—sometimes even in cities—rather than building larger fulfillment centers in farther-out, less populated areas. The ultimate goal is same-day, and even same-hour, delivery.

But fulfillment isn’t just about fast delivery; it’s also about fast packaging. And that’s increasingly done by robots. In 2012 Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, now Amazon Robotics, whose rechargeable orange robots might look like a 1970s ottoman but can find anything in any warehouse instantly, and lift up to 3,000 pounds. They’re designed to move proprietary shelving “pods” along a predefined grid to workstations where real-live humans pick, pack, and prepare the items for shipment—often working on multiple orders simultaneously. Among other benefits, the Amazon Robotics system is flexible, scalable, and it’s five to six times more productive than manual picking. Plus, without the need for human-scale aisles, a fully automated warehouse requires half as much space as a traditional warehouse, and can use purchasing data to constantly rearrange itself so that the most frequently bought products are closer to the picking stations. The downside of this robot revolution? The robots can only be used to transport relatively small items that fit in the pods, and the systems requires a large and expensive investment in infrastructure—as well as a very, very flat floor.

After purchasing Kiva, Amazon took it off the market, forcing competitors who previously used them to find a new solution. This has resulted in a robot arms race as new companies rush to fill the void. One of those companies, Locus Robotics, was founded by Quiet Logistics, which was the first 3PL to use Kiva’s technology. Locus’s robots, which look like the love child of the Jetsons’ Rosie and a hat rack, can be integrated into any standard warehouse, cutting startup costs and accommodating the unpredictable nature of e-commerce. In a Locus-equipped warehouse, human pickers work in specific areas and the robots zip around each other from zone to zone, following the most efficient path to fill an order before taking it to the shipping station. Sensors, cameras, and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) help the robots map the warehouse and keep them from running into anything or anyone. Locus markets its robot as a more collaborative, worker-friendly solution that plays to the unique skill sets of both: The robot, with its infinite spatial knowledge, limitless stamina, and complete lack of self-doubt, quickly locates and delivers items, while the nearby human, with his or her prehensile hands, picks it up and puts it in the basket. For now, anyway. The robot arms race is becoming a robot hands race as companies work to develop reliable grasping mechanisms to replace human pickers who have annoying habits like going to the bathroom and going home at the end of their shift.

These two automation systems have very different implications for warehouse design, but denser solutions like Amazon’s automated ottoman seem ideally suited to the smaller fulfillment centers encroaching into our cities with carefully calculated products selected to get more people more things in less time. Lynn believes they could do a lot more than cut down shipping time on your Crest Complete Multi-Benefit Toothpaste with Whitening + Scope. “The level of spatial intelligence in these buildings is remarkable,” he said. “It’s clear that every item is being tracked at all times. In terms of localization and knowing where things are, it’s a hyperintelligent space.… [But] how do you take that kind of spatial thinking and apply it to other building types—a library or market or university?”

Lynn has been exploring that question with architecture students at Yale and UCLA, but we may not have to wait long to find out. Amazon is already experimenting with brick-and-mortar bookstores and grocery stores. Could Amazon U really be that far out? Could logistics save the shopping mall? Should more architects and planners consider these interconnected systems and design for robots as well as people? It may only be a matter of time before automation becomes integrated into our daily lives outside the warehouse and the architecture of fulfillment becomes the architecture of the city. Beyond packing and shipping, could fleets of autonomous vehicles transform cities by making parking garages and parking lots obsolete—creating new space for fulfillment centers, perhaps, or putting a new premium on curb space for drop-offs and pick-ups? I haven’t even mentioned drones yet. As technology evolves to meet the demands of our on-demand lifestyle, what else will change? Perhaps all cities will come to resemble Calvino’s fictional Leonia, whose opulence was measured “not so much by the things that each day are manufactured, sold, [and] bought…but rather by the things that each day are thrown out to make room for the new.” Ultimately, Leonia was threatened by a looming mountain of its own leftovers. But I bet they could get new underwear delivered in less than an hour.

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Ho,Ho, Home: Architects design a modern logistics center for Santa Claus

Competing for a place in holiday history—and a ten-week paid internship at the Oslo office of Snøhetta—entrants from fifty-nine countries submitted 243 proposals for a new logistics center for a very singular client: iconic global trading magnate, Santa Claus. The "Unbelievable Challenge" competition was organized by Finnish firm Ruukii Construction, the City of Oulu (Finland), Helsinki Design Week, and Snøhetta. Designs were evaluated not only for aesthetics, but for energy efficiency, sustainability, and suitability for the harsh climate conditions of the site, the Perävainio district of Oulu. The jurors were unanimous in their praise for the entries, and singled out several finalists for special mention. Of the winning project, titled Nothing is Impossible by Alexandru Oprita and Laurentiu Constantin of Romania (above), the panel stated, "The strength of this proposal is being able to exhibit an idea of surprise and magical character within the building itself. The magic happens at nighttime on the building's facade and there's a link to the investor—Mr. Santa Claus. It is feasible and innovative but not futuristic. It is also well thought through, from land use all the way to detailing." The five short-listed finalists (surely also on Santa's nice list)—whose projects, we notice, feature parking lots and loading docks instead of reindeer stables (below)—received that ever-reliable Christmas fallback gift: cash.