Gone are the days when inventory inaccuracy is just part of doing business. As new technology is increasingly affordable and pervasive, more third-party logistics (3PL) companies embrace innovation to improve their competitive advantage.
Inventory accuracy is one of the most important KPIs for any 3PL or warehouse. The higher the accuracy, the faster orders can be processed, leading to efficiencies that reduce overhead costs and increase the capacity to support more business. To achieve acceptable inventory accuracy rates, warehouses typically require extensive labor to manually audit stored goods (also known as cycle counting). Plus, many warehouses keep inventory more than 30 ft off the ground, posing safety hazards and slowing operations. However, as more 3PLs embrace automation, alternative solutions are taking flight.
For instance, PFS, an eCommerce fulfillment provider and business unit of PFSweb, has integrated Vimaan’s StorTRACK Air self-flying warehouse drones to automate inventory tracking activities within its fulfillment operation that stores and picks, packs, and ships inventory for premier brands. Scanning inventory from the ground to the ceiling, the robots capture up to 1,500 locations per hour and deliver highly accurate inventory status details to the PFS Warehouse Management System (WMS). Implementing this solution improves the accuracy and traceability of client product inventory across PFS fulfillment centers.
Manual inventory tracking is a labor-intensive, time-consuming, and costly process. Plus, today’s labor market makes finding and retaining warehouse staff difficult. Without drones, PFS personnel use ladders, lifts, and mechanical order pickers to manually count inventory with handheld RF technology. Team members can scan approximately 400 labels per hour, while the drones can do 1,500 labels per hour.
“A significant portion of the brands we support at PFS fall under high-value verticals and require 99.9% inventory accuracy, according to our service agreements,” said Jon Gardner, SVP of fulfillment operations at PFS. “Drone automation offers a more efficient and accurate inventory management solution that enables us to better support our clients.”
Especially with the rise in demand for multi-node fulfillment operations, tracking inventory more efficiently across facilities is more critical than ever. PFS plans to use approximately 12 drones per facility, where some operate while others charge, to cover the entire facility.
Image capture expands inventory options
Many warehouse drones are flying barcode scanners, but efficient cycle counting requires much more than barcodes to improve inventory accuracies. A complete view of inventory includes accurate counts, barcode capture, label reading, damage detection, and even reporting on items located in the wrong place. Finding a solution that can do all of this and support efficient WMS reconciliation delivers the most value across the entire warehouse.
Vimaan StorTRACK AIR drones capture images of inventory, while intelligent software uses optical character recognition (OCR) to expand the label types and configurations, such as a pallet or box. For example, premier brands with small-piece products typically come in cases with multiple items of the same SKU located within a larger box or bin. With image capture, drones can efficiently scan case labels, and OCR can translate the information.
After scanning the designated inventory locations, the drones return to a data exchange location that downloads the data captured in flight. PFS compares what the drones saw to its WMS inventory and generates a discrepancy report if the drones’ scans differ from the WMS data. This enables near real-time investigation against any discrepancy.
Air traffic control makes aisles safer
Warehouse staff typically schedule flight times outside operational hours to ensure no associates are in the aisles while drones scan inventory. The drones run overnight when fulfillment activities are either done for the day or slower, but they can operate during break hours if a discrepancy occurs and an area needs to be checked. Staff can also place caution lighting in an aisle to prevent employees or machines such as lifts from entering an aisle while drone counting is taking place if a count is required during operating hours.
“Drones reduce the amount of machinery required to perform audits and, therefore, we find that they create a safer warehouse environment,” said Gardner. “Since employees and drones do not operate in a particular area at the same time, there is little interaction.”
Because they fly in closed environments and around people, warehouse drones require highly robust collision and obstacle avoidance capabilities. Also, because the drones are operated indoors, they do not need to comply with strict FAA regulations or rely on GPS signals.
AI/ML computer vision improves tracking
Vimaan took care of all software integration, and PFS can use either an API or flat file to exchange inventory information. If the warehouse layout changes, such as a rack height or beam height, Vimaan reprograms the system so that the drones navigate accurately.
But the true advantage of the Vimaan inventory tracking and management solution is the proprietary AI-enabled computer vision, which extends beyond drone flight. The image capture technology allows for dimensioning in addition to OCR, and PFS is exploring other uses. For example, an image capture device can be set up at pack stations to capture a photo of orders as they are packed. The images can then be referenced for damage checks, shipping validation, dispute resolutions, and more.
Clear product labeling optimizes drone use
Drones are just one of many automation solutions that 3PLs and warehouses can leverage to increase efficiency and reduce costs. They help optimize vertical space without associated safety hazards or operational challenges. They also work with existing processes and environments so facilities can omit layout changes and focus on making existing processes more effective.
However, warehouses shouldn’t deploy drones for the sake of using drones. It’s about the value being delivered to the inventory management processes.
“With drones, warehouse design focuses heavily on clear product labeling,” said Gardner. “Racking depth and labeling requirements are keys to designing a warehouse optimized for drone use. The layout allows the drone to move faster and see the label better and also optimizes space by allowing for more pick locations per square foot within the warehouse.”
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Filed Under: Warehouse automation, ALL INDUSTRY NEWS • PROFILES • COMMENTARIES