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A Brief History of E-Commerce

After the collapse of e-commerce in early 2000, many people had written off the e-commence sector. E-commerce companies continued to languish for a few years.Soon there was a resurgence in the industry and the  e-commerce companies experienced a boom and grew expponentially, E-commerce growth really accelerated when the U.S. government enacted the "Internet Packaging Act" (IPA). The act mandated that all products packaged to sell for more that $50 should meet the following requirements:

  • The retail packaging of the product should be such that the product could be shipped without any repackaging by the e-tailers. The main objective was to eliminate costly repackaging by e-tailers for courier delivery.
  • The retail package should be equipped with a magnetic strip instead of the then prevalent UPC codes. The magnetic strip should contain complete product information and SKU (Stock Keeping Unit), including the sell by date. In addition to the product information, the magnetic strip should contain enough free bytes to allow for on the fly programming of the additional information by the e-tailers. These fields will be used to program the source and destination addresses for package delivery
  • All courier services should be capable of handling IPA compliant packaging.

As expected, the act received stiff resistance from the manufacturers. After intense negotiations, it was decided that the IPA would take effect only in 2030.

Once the agreement was reached, things moved rather quickly and a lot of new automatic store management products were designed. These products fell into two categories:

  • Package Routers: These products were capable of reading the magnetic strip on the fly and routing the packages to the appropriate conveyor belt. The package routing was accomplished by predefined routing tables. The routing tables could route packages based on either the product information or product destination.
  • Package Bins: These products actually stored the product packages. They could receive products from the factory and store them automatically. When a customer order was received, these products could program the products magnetic strip with the customer's address. The package would then get routed through the conveyer belt network to the courier.

The Helix Product Line was the first fully automatic web store with no human involvement in inventory management and product delivery. R&D department also produced the most advanced Package Routers and Package Bins. The Helix Router and Helix Bin were also used by several other e-tailers.

In this article we will be going through the design of the Helix Router and Helix Bin products. To really understand the functionality of the two products, let us consider the overall design of a very simple web store.

automated e-commerce workflow

The above picture shows a complete web store selling five products A, B, C, D and E. The products are housed in corresponding Bins. The Bins receive product packages on the Receive conveyor belt (blue arrows). The products are sent out on the Send conveyor belts (red arrows). The conveyor belts are connected to Package Routers. The Package Routers receive packages from input conveyor belts and route them to the output conveyer belts. The package routing can be configured to work on product information or customer address information.

The web store is really a network of Package Routers and conveyer belts connecting to the Bins. The store is organized so that fast moving products (A and B) can be received and sent by just one routing hop. Slow moving products (C, D and E) have to go through two hops. The store receives shipments from factories at the input of Router P. Product A and B get routed directly to Bin A and B. Products C, D and E get routed through Router Q to reach their Bin. When customer places an order for a product, the product's magnetic strip is updated with the destination address and routed through Routers S (C, D and E only) and Router R to be automatically loaded into the waiting courier's truck.

The complete operations of the web store are controlled by the Helix Web Server. Helix Web Server takes orders from customers over the internet. When it receives orders, it asks the appropriate Bin to release a product for the customer. The Helix Web Server also keeps track of the product inventory. If it is running low a particular product type it places an order by using the Ordering Web Service (OWS). All the communication between the Helix Controller and the Bins and Routers takes place through the LAN shown in the figure.