Warehousing and Logistics Tech, and Robots?

6 08 2011

The fact that the area is a hotspot for warehousing goes without saying.  I know, I know, I’ve mentioned it before.  It is the surviving economic mainstay with decline in gaming and tourism revenues for Northern Nevada.  Now, you might be thinking that there is no high tech connection but let me assure you there is.

In the last several years, in reaction to the upswell of internet purchasing, Nevada has become a mecca for internet retailers like Zappos out of Las Vegas.  Our central location on the West Coast, inexpensive buildings,  good rail lines and no inventory tax have drawn the operations of several companies here.

Now, surely you don’t think that Wal-Mart’s newest distro hub and Amazon.com built these brand new million+ sqft warehouses and stocked it with outdated IT.  Oh, no no no.  Even the independent warehousing operations like Hopkins Distribution are now integrating RFID into their operations.

As an RFID engineer I understand the importance of this “new” technology and how it is transforming logistics and supply chain management.  However slowly, we are coming much closer to item level tagging in many industries although still pallet level is much more common in warehousing.  Depending on the companies needs they may have a distributed antenna array that provides RFID services as well as the ability to add WiFi and components from carriers like Sprint, Verizon and ATT.  We can talk about these possibilities later.  I’ve designed and installed dozens, if you have any specific questions feel free to ask.  But that’s not why I’m blogging today.  Listen to this story about high tech warehousing:

I was taking Dr. Rogers MBA class on Supply Chain Management last Fall.  We were invited to take a tour of the recently turned up inventory system at Soap.com (and Diapers.com).  I was blown away at the process.  An order comes in via the popular web site.  While the order queues up waiting for a “picker” (a human that fills the shipping box), a fleet of robots goes out onto the floor and starts collecting all the pieces of the order, by the pallet.  By the time the picker is ready, there is a line of robots waiting for him with everything he needs to complete the order.  The picker opens the appropriate sized box and retrieves the first item from the first robot.  He knows it’s the right item because there’s a laser on the platform pointing out the correct box  on the pallet.  In case of question, the pickers computer screen also shows a picture of the object.  Picker places the object in the box and off the robot goes to shelve the pallet on the warehouse floor and pick up his next command.  By the time the picker has placed item #1 in the box, the second robot is standing in front of him with item #2.  When the order is complete the box is weighed to ensure the correct items were inside a label is printed and off it goes to shipping via another robot.

Sounds too futuristic almost, doesn’t it.  It’s real, and it’s effective.  They have more or less eliminated the human lifting, and much of the delay from searching for the right product.  They are very proud of their turnaround time as well they should be.

If you want to watch a robot picker in action, go see MARS at UNR, in the Mathewson Knowledge Center.  There in the bookstacks is a place to watch the action.  It’s impressive.

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