GPS Tracking, Robots Key in Heavy Retail Shopping Season

December 2, 2014  - By
An Amazon employee picks items in the company's newest generation fulfillment center. (Photo: Business Wire)

An Amazon employee picks items in the company’s newest generation fulfillment center. (Photo: Business Wire)

It used to be when you expected a home delivery, you could specify morning or afternoon, and hope you were there when the truck showed up. In today’s high-tech retail experience, van deliveries can be slotted specifically in two hour, or even one hour, windows. This is just one development in the battle for speed, as major retailers turn to technology to help Santa get presents under the tree on time.

According to a feature at BBC News, automated route planning and GPS tracking of vans has greatly improved deliveries, along with better warehouse scanning technology, such as the intricate robotic system employed by Amazon in its warehouses.

Last December, Amazon demonstrated its idea of a drone delivery service, but that technology has yet to launch. For now, the increase in speed it taking place on the warehouse floor, which has turned to robots guided by an intricate barcode system. In 10 of Amazon’s U.S. warehouses, an army of 15,000 robots are helping human employees pick, pack, and ship items.

A Kiva robot moves product in Amazon's eighth generation fulfillment center. (Photo: Business Wire)

A Kiva robot moves product in Amazon’s eighth generation fulfillment center. (Photo: Business Wire)

The system uses robotics, Kiva technology, vision systems and almost 20 years’ worth of software and mechanical innovations to fulfill holiday orders. Amazon purchased the system in 2012 and tested it in 2013, but this is its first year for full deployment. Instead of having employees go to the shelves to find the items for an order, robots automatically deliver the items to them, hauling seven-foot-tall shelving units on their backs.

The robotic system has made picking products go two to three times faster, employees said.

The need for speed presents is a huge challenge for retailers trying to offer their customers a seamless shopping experience in-store, online and via mobile, the BBC reports. “Speed is the new battleground,” said Craig Sears-Black, UK managing director of Manhattan Associates, a software company specializing in warehouse management systems. “These days orders have to be processed in two hours, not two days. The physical side of selling needs to be optimized.”

In the UK, MetaPack handles the delivery of online transactions for 80 of the UK’s top 100 retailers, integrating about 240 delivery companies worldwide into its system. “These days competition amongst carriers is giving consumers a lot more choice over when and where their parcels are delivered,” said Patrick Wall, MetaPack founder and chief executive.

When a customer selects delivery options, MetaPack works out which are available in which location for which goods. MetaPack then decides which carrier represents best value for the retailer and handles all the tracking data so everyone can know exactly where the parcel is on its journey at any time.

In the U.S., FedEx is using enhanced visibility technology to help customers plan for package deliveries and pickups. At many FedEx ground facilities, high-speed six-sided camera tunnels with real-time package tracking updates scan every side of a package, enhancing the readability of a shipping label and providing visibility to a package’s location at all times.

That tracking technology, coupled with network-wide improvements, will offer customers increased visibility this season, including clarification as to exactly when a package is available for pickup at FedEx locations, FedEx said. It also will offer increased visibility into a package’s journey, from the time FedEx takes possession of the package to its estimated delivery date.


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