Reverse Logistics Warehouses Have a lot to Learn from Amazon

A huge part of a company's reverse logistics operation is effectively managing the warehouses required to store returned products. These items can often remain in storage for a significant amount of time as they are processed, assessed, refurbished, recycled, or disposed of.

Like many industries, warehousing is being transformed by the advent of digital technology. Manual processes are being replaced by automation, and advanced software such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things are making it easier and more convenient to process returned products.

In a previous article, we discussed some of the ways technology is helping to make the returns process simpler for customers and staff. Now, we turn our attention to the warehouses themselves and look at some of the exciting innovations in this area of reverse logistics.

Warehousing

No article on technology-powered warehousing innovation would be complete without paying lip service to the arguable masters of the field: Amazon.

Jeff Bezos' ecommerce giant has become well known for its next-generation fulfillment centers and, as always, there are plenty of lessons to be learned and inspiration to be gained by looking at what the biggest players in the game are up to.

Amazon's warehouse operation in Baltimore is unlike any other. Serving dual purpose as both a working fulfillment center and an innovation lab, the enormous building is home to the very latest in warehousing robotics technology.

When inventory enters the warehouse, it is randomly assigned to stowers and placed in 2-meter-high storage pods carried by mobile robot drive units. While it may seem strange to sort inventory randomly instead of each item having a dedicated shelf, Amazon has found that this approach makes picking orders and locating items far simpler.

Because each item's randomly designated space is stored and logged using Amazon Web Service's powerful data capabilities, pickers can quickly find the item closest to them, reducing the amount of time spent moving between specified category locations.

"The system also makes far more efficient use of every available inch of space," said Chief Technologist of Amazon Robotics, Tye Brady. "We can squeeze more stuff into the same footprint. We want our large objects to be mixed with our small objects to be mixed with our medium objects because it volume optimizes."

The robots are equipped with special sensors which help them avoid their human colleagues, who wear special vests fitted with technology which can be detected by them. This prevents any workplace accidents which could occur from these large robots moving around in the same space as human employees. Tablet computers given to the human operators allow them to create a sensor-based shield around themselves and even take control of the robot directly if necessary.

Amazon Robotics

One of the newest technologies being tested at the Baltimore fulfillment center is an innovative method of tracking the bar codes on the various products, bins, shelves, and robots moving in, out of, and around the warehouse.

Whereas previously employees would have used handheld scanners to track items moving through the warehouse, Amazon's new optical tracking technology is removing this need. Cameras can automatically scan containers as they are moved around, with an optical computer vision system able to isolate and identify the individual products within.

"Hand-held barcode scanners can get in the way of picking and packing," said Software Development Manager at Amazon Robotics, Eli Gallaudet. "Seeing pickers tucking a scanner under their chain as they tried to stow items in bins, prompted the search for better ways of keeping track of items. The quest was on to get those hand-held scanners out of the way."

Amazon's advanced robotics technology, combined with the powerful artificial intelligence of Amazon Web Services, is making the Baltimore fulfillment center a beacon of inspiration for any business running logistics operations.

Final Thoughts

Amazon's random assignment system could be a great fit for reverse logistics. Because you may have one item from one category and dozens from another, it could be counterproductive to have dedicated spaces for each.

As long as your warehousing operation has the space and infrastructure to effectively track each randomly stowed product, Amazon's solution could help your reverse logistics operation make better use of the space available to it - saving the revenue which would have been spent on expanded storage space.

"When it comes to warehouse management, constant evaluation and adoption of crucial technologies is critical so as to improve profitability and stay competitive," reports Cerasis. "Today, warehouse managers have a wide array of technologies to choose from as they strive to reduce costs, improve efficiency and streamline operations. They must ensure that goods, materials and products flow effortlessly by optimizing their warehouse operations through the use of warehouse technologies."


Warehousing technology is set to be a hot topic at Consumer Returns Management 2019, being held in October, at the Hyatt Regency Austin, Texas.

Please download the agenda today for more information and insights.



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