The Next Step in Automated Warehouse Solutions
Inventory counting is an essential and recurring component of warehouse operations. An increasing volume of inventory flows (driven by e-commerce) coupled with the need to maintain accurate stock records (required for audits or 3PL SLAs) has made frequent inventory counts a necessity. Warehouses are large spaces – sometimes over a million square feet in area – with inventory stored in the rack and/or bulk configurations – such that space utilization is optimized while leaving sufficient space for receiving processing and shipping activities. Counting inventory in warehouses often results in shut-downs and extra costs incurred by hiring overtime staff. The vast majority of warehouses and DCs continue to use handheld barcode scanners to scan pallet/carton labels, with people and equipment (eg. swing reaches, scissor lifts, ladders, etc.) deployed for cycle counts.
Since inventory counting is a critical business process, it is in the best interests of warehouse stakeholders to continuously improve their inventory count processes by adopting automation technologies and solutions.
Needless to say, manual counting of inventory in warehouses is a tedious process, that tends to be error-prone and difficult to audit. Workers have to be paid overtime during annual / peak season counts, their safety may be at risk due to tall racks, moving material handling equipment and the need to scan hard-to-reach locations. Shrinkages in stock due to theft is a real business concern for facilities that store consumer and/or expensive goods – as are liabilities resulting from safety incidents.
Manual counts, on the other hand, can serve as a complement to automated counts – for example, when automated counts flag a discrepancy, a human can be tasked to troubleshoot the matter. Similarly, storage configurations that are less amenable to automatic scans (eg. broken pallets, multi-deep storage) can be counted manually while full pallets and one-deep case reserve can be scanned automatically.
Drones for Inventory Control
Inventory counting systems in warehouses have long been a target of automation technologies. RFID was a once-promising technology, expected to fully automate inventory counting using wireless communication. Unfortunately, the expense, complexity, and limitations of RFID have drastically limited its use in the warehousing and supply chain industry. Automated ground robots and vehicles have been considered as an option – but the relatively high capital expenditure and use of valuable ground space have severely restricted their broad adoption.
Nevertheless, automation remains of strong interest to warehouse GMs and continuous improvement managers, since it frees up valuable human labor for higher-value tasks, is cost-efficient, and reduces risk to human lives. The latest development in automated solutions for warehouse inventory management is the adoption of drones – which are proving to be an ideal tool for inventory counts – especially for scanning front-facing barcodes on pallets/items stored one-deep in racks. Drones for inventory control provides a feasible and highly modifiable technique to control and count inventory.
Autonomous drone solutions deployed for counting pallets allow for flexibility, customizability, greater accuracy, and higher frequency than manual counts. Not only barcodes but QR codes, as well as alphanumeric labels, can be easily scanned by drone solutions that use computer vision and AI/ML to read such labels. Easy integration with warehouse management systems (WMS) makes it possible to automate bi-directional data transfer. WMS logic can be programmed to automatically trigger drone flights to scan specific aisles/racks/locations – and the data collected by drones can be automatically pushed into WMS for comparing the ‘ground truth’ of location-wise data with that in the WMS.
Optimization of Drone Deployments in Warehouses
As drones get deployed for counting one-deep items stored in racks, warehouse operations can be optimized to extract greater business value from drone investments. This can be done by leveraging drone investments for adjacent use-cases such as:
- Looking for a specific SKU stored in the racks.
- Verifying pick/place activity for specific dates, locations or pallets.
- Getting an ‘overhead view’ of bulk-storage to locate honeycombed inventory.
- Estimating space utilization of locations to help improve utilization via consolidation.
- Searching for empty locations to serve as an input for put-aways.
- Deploying additional drones during annual audits to shorten the time required for a wall-to-wall count.
- Providing live video feeds to remote warehouse stakeholders / 3PL customers.
- Sharing location-wise and date-time image archives with auditors.
- Scanning very narrow aisles without having to rely on expensive swing-reach trucks and expert operators.
Commercially available as a SaaS offering, autonomous drones solutions such as FlytWare can easily deploy coordinated fleets for faster inventory operations, while ensuring high accuracy and auditability. With the use of cost-effective, off-the-shelf hardware, the capital expenditure can be minimized and payback periods brought to months rather than years.
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.