Supermarket O.R. (3) Delivery of orders.

It is that time of year again.  The run up to Christmas, when we are urged to spend, spend, spend.  Monthly sales figures give educators plenty of examples of seasonal variation in time series, and I don't just mean the sales of Christmas trees and decorations.  In the U.K. sales of men's socks peak in the last quarter of the year.
So, naturally, newspapers feature the way that retailers cope with the seasonal demand.  Online shopping is still a mystery to many, so naturally feature writers try to explain what happens in simple terms.  So, the Independent (9 December 2011) wrote about one warehouse as follows:
"But it is at the Ocado warehouse where things get really innovative.  The website allows customers to chose from across the board: virtually every brand imaginable, as well as some of its own and Waitrose's Home brands, are available.  Without the local stores to accommodate a picking system, Ocado's warehouse has taken on an almost cult-like status among customers.
At 30,000 square feet, i is the size of ten film lots and processes the equivalent of 30 supermarket's worth of sales.  There are 15 miles of conveyor belts within the building, which carry the so called delivery "totes" from one station to the next, their paths determined by an intricate series of computers.  The secret is the company's IT system, worked on by some 150 programmers.
At each station, items are picked manually or mechanically; either way, the computers have programmed the bag's journey around the conveyor belts so that, when packed, fragile items will be protected."
Credit where credit is due; yes, there are programmers who write the routines and implement the programs, but behind them are people like O.R. specialists who have devised the rules and logic for optimal routing and packing.  The IT function is not, definitely not, solely where programmers work. 
The article was meant to convey the writer's sense of awe at the building and what is produced there.  But look a little behind, and stand in awe at the O.R. people and systems analysts who devised the logic and rules for the in-house computers.  They will never get recognition outside the company, because what they do and have done, has such commercial value.  Today, I salute you!


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