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Supply Chain News: Amazon Receives Patents for Picking and Putaway – by Wristband?

 

System would Eliminate Need to Scan Bar Codes , but Critics See Big Brother

Feb. 5, 2018
SCDigest Editorial Staff

Amazon last week received a couple of patents it first filed for in 2016 for a system that uses ultrasonic communications between storage locations in a DC and special wristbands worn by workers doing putaway and picking activities.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

Amazon rarely comments on its patent filings or awards, but made an exception in this case due to the concerns about workers being further tracked.


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The goal, of course, is to improve productivity. How would this be accomplished? As with nearly all patent applications this one is tough to get through and fully understand, but we'll give it our best.

The patent notes that as the number of SKUs being managed in a distribution center grow, "the challenges of simultaneously completing a large number of packing, storing and other inventory related tasks becomes non-trivial."

No argument from SCDigest there.

The patent filing also states that to accurately identify where specific SKUs have been placed in which "inventory bins" and then to also identify what items have been picked may involve "time consuming acts" such as "pressing a button associated with an inventory bin [i.e., put- or pick-to-light] or scanning a bar code associated with an inventory bin."

It also notes that "computer vision systems" (i.e., smart glasses or mounted cameras) could address this challenge, but observes that such systems "may be computationally intensive and expensive.

Therefore, "improved approaches for keeping track of where an inventory item is stored may be of interest."

We would certainly agree.

So, the result is the idea of the wristband system. The wristbands emit radio signals that interact with transponders around storage locations. For example, as shown in the graphic below from the patent application, Amazon envisions that just four transponders on a portable pick cart would be enough to accurately identify what location a worker was putting products into or out of by triangulating the signals.

 

Amazon Wristband System for Pickers Triangulates from Transponders on Pick Cart

 

Interestingly, the patent notes that such a system could communicate with workers about whether they were putting to or picnking from the right bin by through "haptic feedback." What does that mean? "Haptic" Is defined as "relating to the sense of touch," meaning there would be some kind a physical signal, such as a buzz, that a worker would feel through the wrist bands.


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System Triggers Monitoring Concerns

Interestingly, the patent news has triggered concerns in some quarters about a supposed "Big Brother" aspect to all of this.

For example, a New York Times article on the patents was headlined "If Workers Slack Off, the Wristband Will Know."

Its article then kicks of with this: "What if your employer made you wear a wristband that tracked your every move, and that even nudged you via vibrations when it judged that you were doing something wrong?"

It then adds "What if your supervisor could identify every time you paused to scratch or fidget, and for how long you took a bathroom break?"

A New York Post article on the patent began with "Big tech is embracing Big Brother."

Of course, today's modern Labor Management Systems already track in detail how productive a worker is in great detail, and previous reports on Amazon have been critical of the company's use of productivity targets and getting tough with workers who fall short using existing technologies.

Amazon rarely comments on its patent filings or awards, but made an exception in this case due to the concerns about workers being further tracked.

"The speculation about this patent is misguided," Amazon told AFP in a statement.

It added: "Every day at companies around the world, employees use handheld scanners to check inventory and fulfill orders. This idea, if implemented in the future, would improve the process for our fulfillment associates. By moving equipment to associates' wrists, we could free up their hands from scanners and their eyes from computer screens."

The full filing can be foud by going to the Patent Office's web site and searching for "Amazon Wristbands."


What do you think of this Amazon wristband idea? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below or the link above to send an email.

 

Your Comments/Feedback

Pierre

Monceaux, Freelance
Posted on: Feb, 15 2018
Whenever the non logistics / Supply Chain Management press hears about Amazon coming up with a new solution to improve productivity in their warehouses, they call it inhumane or Big Brother.  They just don't realize that a warehouse, whether stamped Amazon, XPO or anything else, is not an amusement park.  It is a very lively work environment and one that is constantly looking to improve its efficiency.  This bracelet and transponder solution is nothing but a good idea.  And I'll bet my next paycheck that the concept, like many others that you will find in Amazon's warehouses, is the brainchild of someone who is doing that 500 times a day and figured it could be done better.  Amazon encourages this kind of initiative and that's why their productivity, and creativity, is so high.
 

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