This is Patent Pending. Supply chain-related patent applications are published every day 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. Read the last issue here.
Is the warehouse Alphabet's next moonshot?
X Development isn't modest. Its website calls the research company Alphabet's "Moonshot Factory." And, to be fair, the company is behind some of Alphabet's most ambitious initiatives from Project Wing to Waymo. Recent patent applications from the company hint at another supply-chain-oriented focus: warehouse automation.
The X team envisions a warehouse with autonomous pallet jacks and real-time inventory counts. A warehouse control system (WCS) choreographs the systems of sensors and robotics, according to a patent application published this week. The network would track the real-time location of pallets and the inventory count of items stored on pallets.
One method would track inventory with automated guided vehicles that would use cameras to navigate and collect information, according to a second patent application.
The automated vehicles would then be able to:
- Determine the location of inventory in the warehouse.
- Compare this location to the expected location of the inventory.
- Make any needed changes based on the difference between actual and expected location.
Information on inventory location could also allow the system to create more density within the warehouse. It could determine if two or more pallets of inventory could be condensed to a single pallet and also determine the location of the robotic devices needed for the job.
Goodbye backroom, hello attic?
The backroom of a retail store can eat into floor space. But a patent application from Walmart published this week shows a potential alternative: build up, not out.
Inventory is stored above a drop ceiling at a retail store. A fleet of robotic vehicles would ferry inventory between attic space and the retail floor using access points and a rail system.
The system of rails would allow the vehicle to travel vertically and horizontally across the inventory rack space until it reaches the desired inventory. The storage space could be subdivided based on factors like temperature or other inventory requirements. Sensors, including RFID or cameras, could be used to determine the location of the inventory on its journey to ground level.
Suck it up and fly
This patent suggests a new way drones can carry and drop off parcels: a vacuum. "The invention can be used for fun or ordinary deliveries of pizza, boxed fast food, medical supplies to homes or businesses," the description explains.
This would require a pump and a motor and drones are already limited in their flight time based on their battery capacity. If this invention does find a home it might be for short-range jobs.