Drone Solution for Automatically Counting Bulk Inventory
Bulk Storage at Warehouses & DCs
Across most large warehouses and distribution centers, bulk storage tends to occupy 50% or more of the facility’s area. This includes the storage areas used for shipping, receiving and staging. For sites that store goods such as large domestic appliances, aircraft components, and alcoholic beverages, bulk stock inventory turns out to be more effective from an operational perspective.
Unlike rack storage configured as traditional or very narrow aisles, organising a bulk storage warehouse involves ground-based storage of inventory stock, in well-marked areas called bays, with the boxes and/or pallets directly stacked on top of each other. Bays tend to be ~ 100 to 150 square feet in area, with each aisle having bays on either side.
As newer DCs move closer to densely populated urban areas, driven by e-commerce and consumer expectations on rapid delivery, inventory managers have to optimize the warehouse space utilisation at their facilities. This in turn implies a tradeoff between bulk and rack areas, with the former easy to manage, while the latter better in terms of pallet storage capacity.
Bulk Stock Taking via Manual Counts
A key difference between inventory scans of bulk stock versus rack-pallet stock is that almost all warehouses store the same, single SKU in an entire bay. For example, pallets of the exact same item may be staked 4-high, and kept 6-deep in a bay. Similarly, refrigerators or similar appliances may be stacked high-and-deep in a bay, with all items the same SKU. Thus, there is no need to scan various types of warehouse barcodes on each pallet/box within a bay. All that’s needed by the inventory manager is the count of items in each bay.
Warehouse tagging systems for bulk stock are organised such that there are wires over each bay, with large barcode labels that indicate the specific location. An inventory counting associate walks through each aisle, scans the overhead signs/labels using an RF gun, and enters a (manually counted) estimate of the number of items in that bay. Thus, warehouse location mapping in the bulk areas relies on diligent scans of bay barcodes.
While the manual counting of inventory is easier for bulk storage (than for rack) given the ease of access, it can be time consuming as well as inaccurate, for reasons such as:
- Hundreds of thousands of square footage to be manually covered
- Honeycombing of items by fork-lift operators
- Lack of overhead views resulting in inaccurate counts
- Lack of auditable data & counting methods
For quarter/year-end counts, as well as for audits, an army of people may have to be employed to scan and count bulk inventory. They may also need scissor lifts, ladders, fork-lifts and other equipment to conduct a comprehensive inspection of multi-deep, stacked pallets in bays.
Automated Bulk Stock Takes
Warehouse bulk storage management has trended towards automation in recent years, powered by automated fork-lifts, ground vehicles and other material handling equipment. Space utilization has been one key driver, as is the increasing cost (and reducing availability) of labor.
Automated bulk storage scanning systems, however, are yet to penetrate most facilities. This is true despite traditional inventory counting processes that are inefficient, laborious and infrequent. They involve MHE that has to be leased at high costs, and yet do not provide rich enough inventory data.
Counting Bulk Inventory Using Drones
Drones, especially autonomous ones, offer great promise for bulk stock takes. They can fly fully autonomously over the bulk storage, capture images & videos from all sides, and potentially even count the inventory with high accuracy, all without any pilot or human operator.
Barcode scans aren’t required for most bulk inventory counts; instead intelligent drone solutions can use AI/ML techniques to analyze the images and videos captured by drones. By delineating pallets, cartons and boxes, the software can estimate how high, and how deep, they are stored in each bay, thus truly automating the bulk inventory counts.
Live videos during drone flights can help inventory managers identify honeycombing in bays, unsafe storage practices by forklift operators, missing SKUs, opportunities to improve space utilisation via consolidation, etc.
By using cost-effective, off-the-shelf drones, a fleet of such aerial vehicles can be deployed to scan thousands of bays and millions of square feet. This enables faster, more frequent, and more accurate bulk stock stakes compared to traditional, manual counts.
Realizing Business Value From Bulk Inventory Drones
It turns out that aerial inventory scans of bulk stock, using drones, is ideally suited for warehouses and distribution centers with:
- Bulk storage area larger than 200,000 square feet,
- Availability of overhead wires for placing QR codes that enable indoor autonomous navigation, and
- Inventory SOPs that involve storing the same SKU in a given bay, thus obviating the need to scan barcodes.
Early adopters of automated bulk stock taking using drones find that a payback period and RoI of less than a year is easily achievable for such facilities. In fact, there is significant intangible value created by aerial inventory scans in the form of live video feeds, auditable bay-wise images and adjacent use-cases such as empty bay audits and on-demand spot checks for specific SKUs.
FlytWare PoC at an Appliance Distribution Center
Recognizing the opportunity to trial autonomous drones at their 1M+ square foot distribution center in the Greater Atlanta area, a US-based manufacturer invited FlytBase to deploy our aerial scan solution – as a proof-of-concept – for automated bulk stock taking at their site.
With thousands of bays, this warehouse is designed for nearly 100% bulk storage of home appliances. Counting the inventory in this vast DC consumes significant time, labor and equipment, especially during peak season with the facility operating at near 100% capacity. Drones can address these challenges faced by inventory stakeholders at such large warehouses – especially when deployed in the form of fully autonomous fleets with built-in precision landing, battery charging, aisle crossing, etc.
Despite the lack of GPS, FlytWare drones can be programmed to automatically navigate over bulk bays, in different patterns, to capture images of the SKUs of interest. This can be planned, executed and monitored via an operator dashboard. FlytWare’s indoor autonomous navigation has been tested for reliability despite the presence of static obstacles, turbulence caused by large overhead fans, and interference from other RF networks in the facility.
Thus, through PoCs and pilots, home appliance manufacturers – for example – validate the potential return-on-investment from bulk inventory drones – driven by labor and equipment savings, live video feeds, bay-wise images, and faster cycle counts.
Streamline your DC inventory audits, and honor your 3PL customer SLAs, by deploying drone solutions that come with live video feeds, date-wise image archives, and location-wise barcode data.