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 previous issue here.
A robotic changing room
Companies have been using robotics for years now to increase efficiency and accuracy at warehouses. But one part of the order-fulfillment process has remained stubbornly immune to automation: order picking.
As recently as 2019, a robotics executive at Amazon said the company was still a decade away from successfully automating order picking. In a patent application published last month, Walmart added to the conversation by outlining an environment that relies on a modular automated picking system that can swap out its effector, which is what it uses to interact with the inventory.
One of the issues with automating order picking is that some items are firm and durable and able to stand up to the pressure of a robotic grip, while other SKUs might be more fragile and need a lighter touch.
Walmart's idea is to figure out which SKUs require which kind of automated interaction and allow the picking system to swap out parts as needed. The swap is done by using a "transport component" (231 in the figure above) to transfer the picking system to the "end effector store" (226 in the figure above), where it would be automatically outfitted with the hardware needed.
This kind of modular environment allows a warehouse to successfully handle a variety of different inventory while not having to invest in "potentially superfluous" automated picking systems, Walmart argued.
Connecting the freight pieces
When a retailer the size of Target has a container arrive at a port facility, the contents of that shipment are likely planned for delivery to a variety of distribution centers and stores across the country. And the contents could come from an equally disparate set of vendors on the other side of the world.
The process of efficiently consolidating, de-consolidating and generally managing the inland freight movement of this kind of operation has room for improvement, Target argued in a patent application published last month.
Target's idea consists of three different parts:
- A profile maintenance component: contains information on the company's "inland planning zones" that can cover the various customs districts from which it procures inventory.
- A load planning component: used to build container loads out of multiple freight shipments from various vendors.
- A load routing and booking component: an interactive page for booking inland freight.
There are a number of subcomponents within these three parts, but the main goal of the system is ensuring that containers and freight are used as efficiently as possible.
The system would include estimates for time of arrival from vendors that will help plan consolidation of freight before a carrier leaves port. It also provides tracking capabilities that could come through a variety of technologies like RFID, GPS or bar codes, according to the application.
The system would also "balance" ports of origin with destination gateways, based on forecasted demand in different geographic markets. The entire process involves multiple business rules that can determine how freight is handled at various parts of the journey, which can include considerations like putting retail inventory in the front of a container (making it easily assessable) and putting non-retail inventory in the back of a container for shipment.