This is Patent Pending. Supply chain-related patent applications are published every week and this is where we'll talk about the ones that could have the biggest impact on the supply chain and the ones that challenge the norm. We want to give you an idea of where supply chains are heading and what the industry is thinking. Keep an eye out for this column on Fridays. Read last week's here.
Hit the tracks for fulfillment
Amazon wants its inventory everywhere.
It is expanding its network of fulfillment locations and a lot of noise has been made about its patent for airborne fulfillment centers. Amazon's latest fulfillment focus is more down to earth: intermodal containers.
Intermodal-based fulfillment, as Amazon's patent application describes it, would allow the company to fulfill orders from rail, truck or ship.
- Load intermodal container with inventory.
- A robotic system picks and loads items onto drone.
- Launch and retrieval system puts the drone in appropriate position for take-off.
- Drone departs container through opening in the roof.
- Drone travels to a customer's home, delivers package.
- Drone meets back up with the container at a pre-calculated rendezvous point.
- Variety of sensors track container's location.
But wait, drones need new batteries, their propellers might break, and without a human in the loop how does this operation keep running smoothly?
Amazon thought of this. One of the details included in the patent application is a maintenance container where drones can have have a robotic technician replace propellers or batteries.
Amazon says containers could be loaded with inventory before the launch of a book or video game in anticipation of demand spikes, placing inventory in locations where it expects orders.
To compete with brick-and-mortar locations, Amazon wants to cut down on delivery time making it just as convenient to hit order on the marketplace as it is to drive down the road. But this requires a complex network of inventory in fulfillment and sortation centers across the country. It has already promised one-day delivery for a variety of SKUs.
Amazon claims drones will enable 30-minute delivery. Making this happen will not just require drones, but a vast web of SKUs across the country. (Or wherever it plans to deliver.)
Auto authentication for electronics returns
A cracked screen, missing button, a busted headphone jack: all reasons to return an item. But when handling repairs or replacements is not as easy as sending a new item. In many cases, someone has to manually inspect the device to determine what's wrong.
FedEx has a different idea: Let a computer figure it out.
- An image capture system takes a picture of the item.
- The system determines what electronic device it is looking at and compares it to a baseline image.
- Then it determines what external components are needed for repair.
The system could also automatically provide options on ordering the parts if required, according to a patent application published this week.
As e-commerce grows, so do returns, and streamlining the process will help logistics companies or manufacturers deal with the incoming tide. This system, the application explains, reduces the need for human involvement. Someone might still need to connect the returned item to the image capture system, but their hands are free from that point on.
Keeping procurement on the level
Trusting suppliers is important. This trust, though, is likely to come over time, not right away.
A patent application from IBM outlines a computer system that helps businesses determine if a new vendor is a risky partner. The system would help users avoid vendor fraud or deception by assigning risk scores based on a variety of public and private data.
The system will reach these conclusions through a variety of analytics methods including textual analysis of the invoice to find language that might be "indicative of fraud," the patent application says.
A dashboard would provide users with a way to view these risk averages. Users could also set up alerts for results determined to be especially significant. The patent application lays out a number of data sources that would help the system reach conclusions, including risky vendor lists (based on negative past experiences), bank account information, financial indices, social network data and company risk reports.