Supply Chain News

Warehouse Drones Ready for Digital Inventory Management

Bolstered by the growth in industrial IoT, drones are proving their benefits for aerial inventory within warehouse facilities.

Aerial Inventory Robots

Unlike their highly publicized home delivery cousins, drones designed for warehouse uses have been flying under the radar.

However, a high-profile board appointment to an indoor drone pioneer could mean aerial inventory robots are ready to come out of the shadows.

In August, Chris Sultemeier, former executive vice president of logistics for Walmart, joined the board of warehouse drone pioneer PINC to help roll out the company's new technology.

Read the Article: Former Walmart Executive Chris Sultemeier Joins Warehouse Drone Pioneer PINC

“I’ve had the pleasure of knowing the PINC team for almost four years now,” Sultemeier said in the announcement of his board position.

“With the company’s experience and core intellectual property in asset and inventory identification, I’ve seen firsthand how large organizations can benefit from PINC’s solutions, especially the aerial inventory robots.”

Prior to retiring from Walmart in 2017, Sultemeier oversaw the retailers’ distribution and fulfillment centers. And in 2016, the retailer reportedly began testing aerial inventory technology at its warehouses.

During the trial, sensor-equipped drones flew in the aisles of a distribution center and alerted management to products that were close to being out of stock or were not in their assigned slot, the New York Times reports. At the time, Walmart said it would move forward with implementing the technology in more warehouses within the year.

Experts say that 90% of a company's inventory is stationary in the warehouse and many companies carry excess inventory because they don't know what they have or where it's located. Solving that problem could allow companies to cut their inventory carrying costs by billions of dollars.

For that reason, tech companies have been testing drones or unmanned aerial vehicles to carry sensors through a warehouse to take inventory faster and more accurately than human workers can manage.

Now, two years since Walmart's pilot, those efforts are ready to transition from testing to a production environment.

Warehouse Drones Support Intelligent Platforms

Underneath the hype of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles in various supply chain use cases, they're actually just a platform that supports a range of other emerging technologies such as sensors, artificial intelligence and inventory and network optimization.

In 2017, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tested drone technology using RFID tagged items. Drones could read RFID tags tens of meters away with an average error of only 19 centimeters - quite accurate given the distance. Researchers said the goal was to prevent inventory mismatches and locate individual items.

"If you're carrying inventory you have inventory accuracy problems and it doesn't matter what line of business you're in, everybody has this problem," Matt Yearling, CEO of PINC, told Supply Chain Dive.

However, automated warehouse inventory systems like drones suffer from the "garbage in, garbage out" problem. If inventory is misplaced, an automated system will only be able to point out the problem, not prevent it or fix it, Dwight Klappich, research vice president with Gartner, said in an interview with Supply Chain Dive.

Dwight Klappich, research vice president with Gartner

“One of the challenges with physical inventories is that it's not considered productive work, it's more administrative”Dwight Klappich, research vice president with Gartner

"Some companies have locally inadequate inventory management, and they have latched onto the idea that flying a drone up and down the aisles every night would solve their problem, but you really should start by looking at what's causing these problems, whether the staff is putting inventory where they're supposed to put it. Fix those problems, and then you're not going to need the drone."

Furthermore, drone-based technology has to work within existing infrastructure and labeling practices to lead to widespread adoption.

PINC started developing PINC Air indoor inventory technology in 2014 based on its outdoor technology used for tracking inventory in equipment and storage yards.

The technology operates autonomously, taking off and landing from the same location automatically, and avoids any obstructions in its flight path. It surveys large areas of densely packed assets for inventory reconciliation or to pinpoint the location of specific inventory.

Download the White Paper: The Rise of the Digital Yard

The system blends optical sensors and machine learning technology that maps the current warehouse set up and learns existing inventory labeling methods.

"Our two key design principles were not to change the way you do it and not to introduce any additional infrastructure to make this work," Yearling said. "We introduce the robot to the environment and train it to the inventory."

A label may contain many characteristics including alphanumeric data, barcodes and even handwriting.

Matt Yearling, CEO of PINC

“We introduce the robot to the environment and train it to the inventory”Matt Yearling, CEO of PINC

"We teach the robot to understand what about the labels is important, and we extract that information from the scene and process those labels with relevant information," Yearling said.

The flying inventory robots are many steps beyond strapping a barcode scanner on a hobby-level quadcopter and flying it around the warehouse.

"We've talked to potential customers who said they had tried drones and it didn't work for them, but they tried to fly a drone around manually, and it crashed," Yearling said. "The key is that it has to be autonomous."

Drones Still Face Limitations

At this early stage, the drone technology is facing some limitations that may be overcome in the future.

First of all, the view of inventory is limited to what the drone can see from beside or above a rack. "Realistically, I wonder if anything flying up and down an aisle really gives an accurate view of inventory because all it can see is the front of the pallet," Klappich said.

Yearling conceded that a drone's vision might be impaired or blocked, and it can't see into bins. "The limitation today with this technology is that it has to have that inventory in front of it physically, but there is a lot of rich information that you can get from looking at items on the rack," he said.

Ongoing development of computer vision connected to a neural network could solve those problems in the future, Yearling said.

Chris Sultemeier, former executive vice president of logistics for Walmart

“I’ve seen firsthand how large organizations can benefit from PINC’s solutions, especially the aerial inventory robots”Chris Sultemeier, former executive vice president of logistics for Walmart

One alternative to flying drones is a fixed sensor system such as the one developed by Cloudleaf, an internet-of-things based asset tracking company. It's system is a mesh of intelligent sensors and cloud technology that gathers data in the warehouse in real time.

"You can have inexpensive tags on pallets and readers in the ceiling like Cloudleaf that can tell you where every one of your pallets is, and that solves the problem of people not putting pallets where they're supposed to go," Klappich said.

"But Cloudleaf is not going to send you a picture of what's on the pallet."

But They Address Labor Shortages and Expenses

"One of the challenges with physical inventories is that it's not considered productive work, it's more administrative," Klappich said. "And nobody really likes to do it."

For that reason, Yearling said drones can address some of the labor and cost issues warehouses face by removing the need for humans to conduct a physical inventory.

"We increased inventory efficiencies hundreds of times faster than a human can do it, so it actually redefines the process and how it's done," he said.

However, employees at warehouses where tests were done at first expressed misgivings about what the new technology could mean for jobs, Yearling said.

"The system is not used to get rid of people, it comes from our desire to redirect people by getting the technology to do the work for them," Yearling countered.

"Now the workers are embracing it because it makes their job more interesting."

Source: Supply Chain Dive

Related Article: With Tariffs in Flux Digital Inventory Technology Might Be the Solution to Inflated Inventory Levels

With Tariffs in Flux Digital Inventory Technology Might Be the Solution to Inflated Inventory Levels

Related Resources

Download the Paper

Using Autonomous Robots to Drive Supply Chain Innovation
This paper details how new technologies are presenting promising opportunities for improvement across the supply chain and how autonomous robots and drones are poised to change the game. Download Now!


Download the Paper

Global Autonomous Inventory Robotics New Product Innovation Award
This best practices research paper details the PINC Air inventory robotics solution with its quick deployment model, faster inventory velocity, product ingenuity, and rapid ROI underscoring the decision for PINC to win Frost & Sullivan’s 2017 New Product Innovation Award. Download Now!


Download the Paper

The Four Forces Driving Supply Chain Innovation
When supply chain professionals discuss supply chain execution, their focus is typically put on transportation management systems and warehouse management systems, the yard management systems capability and importance is mistakenly undervalued. Download Now!


Download the Paper

The Rise of the Digital Yard
In this white paper we explore the rise of the digital yard and show how technology is enabling significant efficiencies, productivity gains, and cost containment in a world where every penny added to the bottom line positively impacts organizational success. Download Now!


Download the Paper

Solution Brief: Yard Management System
Yards are the intersection between warehouses and transportation, they are a critical linkage in logistics management practices and have a significant impact on the overall efficiency of the supply chain. Download Now!


More PINC Resources

 

Breaking News: FAA Completes Four Pilots in Its Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program


Article Topics
Best Practices   Supply Chain   Inventory Management   Cloudleaf   Drones   Internet of Things   Warehouse Management   All topics


Comments
Be the first to post a comment.
You must be logged in to post a comment. Login.

 
Latest Supply Chain News
Streamline the U.S./Canada Clearance Process
Here are 5 Customs & Regulatory Compliance tips that will make the U.S./Canada Border Clearance process more efficient.

Amazon Selects New York City and Northern Virginia For Its New HQ2 Locations
Amazon to invest $5 billion and create more than 50,000 jobs across the two new headquarters and announces Nashville as new Operations Center of Excellence with more than 5,000 jobs.

It’s Time to Review and Minimize the Ever Increasing Threat of Cargo Theft
Although many businesses prefer not to report incidences of theft, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) estimates that North American cargo losses amount to roughly $40 billion annually...and the…

SAP SE to Acquire Qualtrics International for $8 Billion
Under the terms of the agreement, SAP will acquire all outstanding shares of Qualtrics for US$8 billion in cash, SAP has secured financing in the amount of €7 billion to cover the purchase price and…


 

24|7 Pro Team

The 24|7 Team is your direct pipeline to solutions for your business challenges. It's your opportunity to have supply chain and logistics experts look at your specific challenges and needs, and give you free, no-obligation advice, solutions, and information.

The 24|7 Team will simplify the task of creating a database of likely partners, building your knowledge base, and preparing your Request for Proposal list.

1
  Choose a topic for your RFP

Transportation RFP/RFI

The Transportation RFP is your direct pipeline to solutions for your transportation challenges. It's your opportunity to have logistics experts look at your specific transportation challenges and needs, and give you free, no-obligation advice, solutions, and information specific to your request.

Choosing the perfect software or system can be an indomitable challenge. Using this transportation/TMS RFP will simplify the task of creating a database of likely partners, building your knowledge base, and preparing your Request for Proposal list.

Warehouse/DC Management RFP/RFI

The Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) RFP is your direct pipeline to solutions for your WMS challenges. It's your opportunity to have logistics experts look at your specific WMS challenges and needs, and give you free, no-obligation advice, solutions, and information specific to your request.

Choosing the perfect WMS solution can be an indomitable challenge. Using this WMS RFP will simplify the task of creating a database of likely partners, building your knowledge base, and preparing your WMS Request for Proposal list.

Supply Chain RFP/RFI

The Supply Chain RFP is your opportunity to have logistics experts look at your specific challenges and needs, and receive free, no-obligation advice, solutions, and information. It simplifies finding a pool of likely partners, building your knowledge base, and preparing your Request for Proposal list. The companies in the Logistics Planner have agreed to respond to your request for in-depth information and follow-up, and your request is totally confidential.

Software/Technology RFP/RFI

The Software/Technology is your direct pipeline to solutions for your logistics information technology challenges. It's your opportunity to have logistics experts look at your specific technology challenges and needs, and give you free, no-obligation advice, solutions, and information specific to your request. Whether it's WMS, TMS, Mobile or Cloud, our pros can help.

The companies listed below have agreed to respond to your request for in-depth information and follow-up. Your request is totally confidential.

Executive Education RFI

The Logistics and Supply Chain Education RFI can help you identify the schools, coursework, continuing education, distance learning and certification opportunities available from leading logistics educational institutions.

Upgrade and improve your logistics and supply chain skillsets. Whatever route you choose—advanced degree, executive education, certification or distance learning—the time and money you invest in your education today can pay off in continued career success tomorrow. Contact leading universities and professional institutions for the information you need to prepare for the future.

Third Party Logistics RFP/RFI

This 3PL Request for Proposal (RFP)/Request for Information (RFI) can help you find the 3PL and 4PL providers that can meet your specific 3PL service challenges and needs. The 3PL companies below will provide free, no-obligation third-party logistics advice, solutions, and information.

Ask your 3PL questions, you'll get answers. Simply complete the information, and detail your 3PL challenges. Then, check off the third-party logistics companies that you want to review your request.

1. Choose an RFI topic.
2. Enter your contact information and challenge.
3. Select companies and optional categories.
4. Submit.


2

Your Information



Your Challenge, Problem or Request *

3

Select Transportation Companies

  • Select All

  • 3Gtms
  • BluJay Solutions
  • CSX Trans. Intermodal
  • Kuebix
  • Landstar
  • Legacy Supply Chain Svs.
  • One Network
  • Pitt Ohio
  • Purolator
  • Quintiq
  • SEKO Logistics
  • SMC3


Select Relevent Categories

  • Air Freight
  • Intermodal
  • Motor Freight
  • Ocean Freight
  • Rail Freight
  • TMS

Select Warehouse/DC Management Companies

  • Select All

  • 3PL Central
  • Apex Supply Chain Tech.
  • Honeywell Intelligrated
  • Kuebix
  • Legacy Supply Chain Svs.
  • Swisslog
  • Westfalia Technologies
  • Zebra Technologies


Select Relevent Categories

  • Auto ID & Data Capture
  • Automation
  • Conveyors & Sortation
  • Lift Trucks
  • Packaging & Labeling
  • Pallets & Containers
  • Shelving & Racking
  • WMS

Select Supply Chain Companies

  • Select All

  • 3Gtms
  • 3PL Central
  • Amber Road
  • Apex Supply Chain Tech.
  • APICS
  • BluJay Solutions
  • CSX Trans. Intermodal
  • Frontier Business
  • Kuebix
  • Landstar
  • Legacy Supply Chain Svs.
  • Logility
  • One Network
  • Purolator
  • Quintiq
  • SMC3
  • Synchrono
  • TAKE Supply Chain
  • Westfalia Technologies
  • Zebra Technologies


Select Relevent Categories

  • Global Trade
  • Inventory Management
  • Risk Management
  • Sustainability

Select Software/Technology Companies

  • Select All

  • 3GTMS
  • 3PL Central
  • Apex Supply Chain Tech.
  • BluJay Solutions
  • Honeywell Intelligrated
  • Frontier Business
  • Kuebix
  • Logility
  • One Network
  • Quintiq
  • SMC3
  • Swisslog Logistics
  • Synchrono
  • TAKE Supply Chain
  • Zebra Technologies


Select Relevent Categories

  • ERP
  • Sales & Operations
  • Sourcing/Procurement
  • Optimization
  • Transportation Mgmt
  • Warehouse Mgmt

Select Executive Education Choices

  • Select All

  • Graduate Courses
  • Online/Distance
  • Executive Education
  • Certifications
  • Undergraduate
  • Seminars
  • Associations
  • Conferences
  • Tradeshows


Select Third Party Logistics Companies

  • Select All

  • 3PL Central
  • Landstar
  • Legacy Supply Chain Svs.
  • Purolator
  • SEKO Logistics
  • Westfalia Technologies


4
 

24|7 Company Profiles