When you click the 'Buy Now' button on an online store, you launch a thousand processes for getting your product shipped to you. All these are done to precision in a few days, or in hours if you have paid for priority gratification. How does this happen? Do tens or hundreds of people have to be deployed to pack that palm-sized portable hard drive into a cardboard box with bubble wrap? How many levers have to be cranked?
There's lots of technology involved but also lots of humans, which slows things. Because buyers always need their products delivered faster, companies like Amazon and Flipkart are constantly in search of technology that can automate the order-to-delivery process to be quicker and error-free.
Typically, once an order is placed with an online marketplace, its system checks the customer's delivery pin code and the order is directed to a warehouse that has the product in stock and is closest to that location.
The pick-to-dispatch cycle typically involves humans picking the correct product in order, packaging it and dispatching it to a delivery person. This can be largely optimised using technology to make the process faster, said Suresh Shenoy, vice president of engineering at Ekart, the logistics arm of Flipkart. Picking the right product involves the warehouse staff going around the facility with tote bags and a list of items on their handheld devices. These devices optimise the route within the warehouse for them, so they know where exactly a product is stored and in what order to fill their bags. A human 'picker' and there's the 'packer' at the end of the processtypically spends half his or her time in a warehouse walking about to pick products, said Shenoy.
Imagine a picker constantly walking to identify and pick products in a warehouse that's 1.5 lakh sqft to 3 lakh sqft. It could take them forever even to pick up all the products purchased by a single buyer. "Our software ensures that the most frequently ordered items are placed in the warehouse in such a way that it is closest to where the pickers start their journey. The list of items given to pickers on a handheld device optimises the route they have to take to pick all the items," Shenoy said.
If you have paid extra for same-day or next-day delivery, your order is put on a priority list. "We recognize one-day and same-day delivery at the time the customer places the order and then process them in a prioritized manner throughout our network to enable ontime delivery," says Akhil Saxena, vice president, India customer fulfilment, at Amazon India.
Amazon was among the first to offer priority deliveries in India. It has gone on to add release-day delivery for exclusive product launches, midnight and Sunday delivery in 200 cities and morning delivery in Bengaluru, Delhi-National Capital Region, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
That's possible because of companies like Gurugram-based GreyOrange, a robotics startup that counts Flipkart, Jabong, Snapdeal, Delhivery and DTDC among clients. It helps online retailers and logistics firms automate their warehouses through its flagship robots, Butler and Sorter.
Butler helps in intelligent storage of inventory, rearranges stored racks based on past and current orders and brings shelves to the 'pick stations' on receiving orders. Sorter, which is more popular in India, is an automated system for loading, scanning and bagging packets based on destination. It involves dimensioning and weighing the products and sorting them on a conveyor belt using a pneumatic arm to divert them according to pin codes, hub codes and destinations.
"The orders are sorted at the end delivery hub by robotic arms. The barcode is read and the package is weighed to rule out theft of the product from the package," said Samay Kohli, chief executive of GreyOrange.
Before dispatching a product to the last-mile delivery provider, two more checks are required. A profiler matches the product with a picture from the customer's order page to make sure the right colour, size and model is being shipped. The packages dimensions and weight also are measured to avoid any dispute with cargo companies.
The order is then sent to a central hub, called the mother hub, attached to the warehouse, where it is sorted into bags depending on the pin code, Shenoy of eKart said.
Logistics firms that work with ecommerce marketplaces also use technology hacks to minimize the time and cost involved in delivering a product. For the first leg of a consignment that involves getting an order from a marketplace's warehouse or merchant to a logistics firm's sorting centre, efficiency is built using automated routing and cost-planning based on algorithms, said Santanu Bhattacharya, senior vice president, technology and products, at Delhivery.
"For example, I will send a mini-truck to pick a shipment of expensive phones and devices and ship them through the air or road at the earliest, as opposed to, say, a mobile accessory," he said. Once a product is ready to be shipped, it is dispatched by road or air cargo to the destination city or town, and to smaller delivery hubs from where delivery boys can pick it up.
Real-time tracking of the delivery fleet, mapping technology and optimization of routes are few hacks that help in the last leg of shipments. delivery also uses a proprietary artificial intelligence software called AddFix that can recognize postal addresses and convert them into coordinates-based addresses.
Buyers often get the pin codes incorrect or give addresses based on landmarks that online maps might not recognize, said Bhattacharya. "When we run an address listed on an order on Google, it gives us an efficiency of 30%, whereas running it on AddFix first and then on Google gives us an accuracy of 90%," Bhattacharya said.