Amazon’s Upcoming Warehouse and Inventory Management System

 

Inventory systems in warehouses, distribution centers, airport luggage systems, and manufacturing facilities face compounded challenges due to the enormous scale of their operations. Traditional inventory systems consist of databases which store the location and identification data of inventory bins so that orders can be filled quickly and accurately. These traditional systems rely heavily on human labour as workers must carry scanners and hardware to manually log each item and corresponding bin in a database.

Amazon's Warehouse

A typical Amazon warehouse – this one from Koblenz, Germany.

Just a few days ago, Amazon received a patent for a wristband which could overhaul their current warehouse operations. The wristband would be a bridge to IoT by allowing communication between inventory storage bins, products, and workers. It’s no wonder that Amazon is among the first major companies to make the leap into IoT. As the scale of Amazon operations steadily increase, the day to day inefficiencies within traditional inventory management systems add up. The goal of the wristband is to eliminate ‘time consuming acts’ related to asset location and order fulfillment.

“Existing approaches for keeping track of where inventory items are stored may require the inventory system worker to perform time consuming acts”.

 

Ultrasonic Sound Pulses

 

The wristband works through ultrasonic sound pulses and radiowaves which facilitate communication between the wristband and nearby transducers on inventory bins. The wristband promises to take the guess work out of asset tracking and inventory management by allowing software to track warehouse worker’s hand movements in relation to tagged inventory bins.
The wristbands can be calibrated to emit an ultrasonic pulse once per second and the strength of the received signal by the transducers would accurately track the location of employees throughout warehouses. If employees mistakenly place product in incorrect inventory bins, the interaction would be logged and corrective action could be taken.

Inventory Management Systems

(Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

“By automatically tracking the performance of the assigned inventory task, the ultrasonic tracking system can be used to reduce or eliminate actions performed by the worker.”

In addition, a haptic feedback response can let workers know in real-time if they are placing product in the correct inventory bin. The system can also send a positive signal to confirm the product is in the correct bin and can automate logged confirmation.

Step-by-Step Guidance

The tracking system devised by Amazon can also be configured to give step-by-step guidance to employees as they go about routine tasks. Warehouse workers with unique tasks can wear wristbands which use different ultrasonic frequencies. In this way, the information directed at workers is specific to the needs of individual workers.

Amazon Ultrasonic Wristband Patent

(Amazon Illustration via USPTO)

Inventory Management and Asset-Tracking

While few companies approach the size and scale of Amazon, the underlying technology and systems which comprise their wristband can be leveraged by businesses of all sizes. Ultrasonic is not the only technology capable of facilitating Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS). Combinations of Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) and UWB Ultra-Wide Band (UWB) are capable of creating similar systems.

 

Bluetooth Low Energy: A Versatile RTLS Solution

For a cost-effective approach, many companies are turning to Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to facilitate RTLS. BLE-enabled RTLS works by affixing Bluetooth-powered tags to products, skids, inventory bins and pallets. Employees carry bluetooth-enabled identification cards and product-person interactions are logged for management in user location reports.
Unlike ultra-sonic and RFID, bluetooth tags do not require expensive transducers, receivers, or gateways. Since cell-phones, tablets, and laptops come equipped with Bluetooth hardware, signals can be picked up and sent directly to a cloud, circumventing the need for expensive, one-use equipment.

 

Future of RTLS

There’s no word on when Amazon will first implement their ultrasonic system. The patent was two years in the making and the initial ideas for a smart inventory management system started swirling in 2012. But, we do know one thing – Amazon is a trendsetter. Other companies will soon follow suit, ushering in a new era of smart warehouses and workforce automation.

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