It might seem like the work of fiction, but Amazon has recently filed a patent for storage facilities they have designed to work underwater. These ‘Aquatic Storage Facilities’ are simply another Amazon solution to logistics problems. Given that Amazon are industry leaders, frequently setting the trend for the latest advances in the logistics and warehousing industry, we can’t write this latest development off as a pipedream. Underwater storage might be the storage solution that’s going to change the landscape of logistics – literally.
Amazon’s Underwater Storage Concept
The patent, titled ‘Aquatic Storage Facilities’ suggests using both artificial and natural water pools and bodies of water to store various goods prior to fulfilling orders.
Waterproof goods aren’t needed – instead stock will be held in specialised watertight containers that are fitted with an air canister. The idea then is that each waterproof storage container will be programmed with a dedicated acoustic signal, which, when activated, will inflate an internal balloon, bringing the submerged storage container safely to the surface where the contents can be accessed.
The Obvious Pitfalls of Underwater Storage
On first impressions, the idea seems a little crazy. Water and retail goods seem a dangerous mix. It seems to require immense technology and infrastructure, which will be expensive. That’s before the time consuming process of surfacing and submerging these aquatic storage containers. It’s difficult to conceive how it will work in practice. Taken a step further – understanding how it could ever be cost-effective – adds another layer of dismay. However, drones were difficult to conceive before they became reality. We cannot discount this. In addition, there’s good reason for Amazon doing this.
Current Storage Problems
Amazon are posing this as a solution precisely because it would solve an astronomical problem in the logistics and supply chain industry. With the explosion of e-commerce and all of the demands of online shopping, storage problems are existing on an entirely new level compared to that which we’ve seen before. With time to market being customer-led, and expectations being so high, retailers need to be able to store and stage goods on a massive scale. Yet, space is at a premium, and it costs. It makes sense to look for other solutions.
If we look more closely at Amazon’s underwater storage proposal it begins to make more sense. For example, with each container being given a unique signature and controllable through airflow, the entire process of moving goods around like a giant jigsaw puzzle suddenly becomes less labour intensive. It’s more akin to the smart warehousing we’ve become accustomed to with Amazon. Theoretically, the underwater process could be less labour intensive, and require less energy because of the nature of water – in the same way that transporting goods by road is less efficient than by river.
Then there is also the fact that expansion and contraction of the storage facility should be considerably easier. A warehouse, by its very nature, is limited by its own walls. Water-based options are naturally larger expanses, with more usable space. Water offers space utilisation on a whole new level: nature does the hard work for you: allowing horizontal, vertical, and any-direction movement of goods. At present, even with robotics, humans or robots are travelling miles within warehouses to find, and select, the right goods. It’s time-consuming, and not space-friendly. As Amazon says:
“… in order to prepare and ship an order that includes a large number or different types of items to a customer, a staff member or robot may be required to walk several thousand feet or even miles within a fulfilment centre in order to retrieve the items. Where a customer submits multiple orders for items, the arduous task of picking, packaging and shipping ordered items must often be repeated for each and every order.”
Add to this where we need storage – near large urban conurbations – and yet again the aquatic option seems enticing. Cities and urban areas don’t have more space, certainly not without high expense, yet many are located near large bodies of water.
Is Amazon’s Underwater Storage Close to Being a Reality?
There are some other problems, beyond that of goods and water mixing. There is actually a fair amount of mechanisation, robotics, and smart technology which is going to need to come together to make this a reality. That’s before opening and changing mindsets on how our urban water facilities could be used. There are logistical problems, such as how does it work if the particular container needed is buried beneath others? However, we’d be naïve to think Amazon hasn’t thought of this.
Additionally, Amazon is hugely driven when it comes to efficiency in logistics and warehouse automation. It leads the way precisely because it stands to benefit the most. Just a decade ago, the smart Amazon warehouses seemed the stuff of the design board and not reality. Aquatic storage containers could well fall in the same boat (excuse the pun). If you combine this technology with the smart technology Amazon is famed for, and highly refined logistics and supply chain analytics, you could potentially find the holy grail of e-commerce “just in time” deliveries.
Furthermore, the technology isn’t a million miles from reality. Similar concepts are already being used for energy storage. Parachutes, and conveyor belts, for example, already exist – it’s just a case of using them differently. Amazon are certainly talking as if this is a soon-to-be reality, even if some naysayers are saying they’ve only patented the concept to stop others from doing the same.
Whatever comes out of the patented Amazon Aquatic Storage Facilities, one thing is certain: the storage conundrum needs addressing. With e-commerce continuing to boom, and developments such as Dash ordering, and storage facilities inherently being limited and expensive, it makes sense to look elsewhere. Using a facility we already have in the form of open bodies of water, with technology that’s within our grasp, it certainly doesn’t seem unlikely that it will happen in the near future.