Saturday, June 09, 2012

Office supplies & the internet, part 2

So I put the question out there, what else can the internet disrupt?

It occurred to me that I've seen the other side of it as well - pick, pack & dispatch in a warehouse environment.

It's been a while since I worked in a warehouse, but I do remember a lot of the physical work that was involved - everything from driving a forklift, to wrapping by hand (pallet wrap is awesome, like a giant roll of gladwrap) or unloading a container.

So it's a little bit freakish to move from where things were 6 years ago - a forklift was a luxury in the south road warehouse I was in - to see the internet having rocked up and connected all of the warehouse packaging supplies you can possibly need to the end customer.

I used to see some things out there - pallet wrapping machines or friendlier pallet jacks - that I would have considered in the realm of warehousing science fiction six years ago.

I never got to use cool toys like an Orgapack strapping tool - on a good day, I got the non crappy stanley knife and packing tape dispenser for a few hours.

I don't think you could ever fully automate a warehouse, but the internet provides a heck of a big step towards it.
The stuff linked to above is only the cusp - supplies, for humans, and a few automated tools. What happens when you take the already ubiquitous warehousing logistical systems (there's a barcode on every carton, product, etc), throw in smartphone apps to replace handheld barcode scanners, add wifi and semi-automated forklifts or other machinery?

MIT has some of the answer. Check this out - a nerd with a smartphone and megaphone guides an autonomous forklift outdoors.

There's no premade routes, and the only thing special about the forklift are the after market addons.

It seems likely that we're going to end up with machines ordering their own supplies from each other, loading those supplies onto a B double or similar truck, driving themselves in a road train, unloading themselves, and humans stepping in for the "oops" moments or to do the finese work - things where it still remains too expensive to put an industrial robot on.

RFID tags and the existing barcodes mean that you don't have to have a perfectly organised system either - you just ping the pallet you want, or read the barcode on the packaging - the whole lot begins to self organise enough.

Push a little further and break down those barriers between backend and frontend systems, and it leads to only one conclusion: clicking that purchase link will give you command of a semi autonomous robot army within 5-10 years from now.

Neat.
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