Making Waves (Part 6): Robots, AI, Drones & Blockchain in the Warehouse

Supply chain industry innovators introduce blockchain, robotics, AI, IoT & drones

Innovation is all around us. If it seems that technology is evolving at a faster pace than ever before, you may be correct. To some people, it seems like only a few years ago, the world of computer science was being taken by storm by the invention of the tablet. For many years, innovation plodded along at a reasonable pace, primarily focused on hardware and software.  

Now mechanical engineers are evolving robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to do things we could only visualize in science fiction movies.

From the buzz in trade magazines to social media, it seems like these innovative technologies are being injected into operations across supply chain logistics networks.  The potential applications and permutations seem endless.  It seems inevitable that these technologies will quickly reach critical mass and worldwide adoption.

In this edition of Making Waves, we take a look at companies that are impacting the supply chain logistics industry through their use of innovative technology solutions using:  industrial robots, drones, cloud computing, blockchain, the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and Big Data.

IAM Robotics:  Robotics for the Modern Warehouse

Question:  What is Swift, has a patent for piece-picking and helps warehouses increase workforce productivity?

Answer:  IAM Robotics, the 5+ year Carnegie Mellon University spinout company that developed the world’s first mobile picking robot.

As the number of individual online orders continues to expand, supply chain operators need more warehouse workers for e-commerce order fulfillment.  Current labor estimates reveal that a labor shortage is anticipated in the warehouse industry for the foreseeable future. Robotics companies have invaded the warehouse.  Universities across the United States are working on robotics engineering for the supply chain industry to meet two critical needs:  to keep the cost of warehouse operations down and provide warehouse workforce resources.  Poised to take advantage of the warehouse labor shortage, Pittsburgh startup company IAM Robotics developed autonomous robots which can navigate human-friendly environments, identify item locations and pick individual items or bins.

IAM Robotics landed a $500,000 investment in late 2017 from NewGen Capital, a Silicon Valley-based early stage investor.  This significant investment will enable IAM Robotics to put more industrial robots into working warehouses.  IAM Robotics developed a three component Swift Product Suite which can execute complicated picking tasks at the speed of human workers and accuracy and can work with existing infrastructure.

The IAM Robotics team reports that their solution is nearly market ready.  Before an IAM robot can work in warehouse operations, the items that the robot will handle are scanned.  The robotics technology solution relies on a unique 3D product scanner known as “Flash”.  Flash records the item’s measurements and takes high resolution images then loads the information into Swift, the robot.

Swift relies on sensors, algorithms and cameras to locate specific items and the industrial robots travel up and down the warehouse aisles as needed to complete the required operation.  Information is relayed to a warehouse management system using the IAM Robotics software interface, “SwiftLink”.  SwiftLink executes commands for setup, picking, productivity tracking and much more.

The warehouse layout plays an important role in the effectiveness of the robot’s labor productivity. 

Implementation of IAM Robotics does not require that companies alter or optimize warehouse layouts.  The system can provide real time reporting and analytical data.  According to IAM Robotics, their solution helps solve the challenges of the warehouse labor shortage and affordable warehouse automation.  IAM Robotics plans to continue to add to their IP technology portfolio to develop solutions focused on throughput and to enable warehouses to provide services including last mile delivery.


Crowdz:  Blockchain Accelerates Business Commerce

Billed as the “world’s first blockchain-based replacement for EDI-dependent business transactions”, Crowdz ZenoChain™ uses blockchain to replace slow, more expensive technologies including EDI, ACH and EFT.  By transforming blockchain into a verifiable, trustworthy, scalable global transaction network, business transactions can be expedited to mere milliseconds. Using the Crowdz blockchain technology platform enables retailers, manufacturers and brands to purchase and sell products across the supply chain more rapidly and efficiently.

Built on the tamper-proof Ethereum blockchain, Crowdz ZenoChain™ uses an API-based interface to onboard suppliers to the transaction network, making the process quick and affordable.   According to industry estimates, the B2B commerce market worldwide will exceed $25 trillion by 2020.  By that time only 11% of US B2B sales and 23% of global B2B sales will be digitized.   Recognizing both global challenge and opportunity, Crowdz has developed solutions based on B-commerce, blockchain-based commerce.  In contrast to other blockchain solutions developed for business, Crowdz was developed to synchronize and accelerate business commerce.

With seven pending patents, Crowdz is poised to make a big splash in the supply chain logistics industry.  Currently a beta version of the Crowdz sourcing system is in use by 240 seller companies, offering a total of 1.3 million products.  Using blockchain’s distributed, fixed ledgers and disseminated operation facilitates development of permanent databases with vital information including inventory levels, product attributes and provenance, transaction histories and much more.  Using this system, transactions can be automated and other activities including the matching of buyers and sellers using artificial intelligence and dynamic price optimization can be facilitated.  The Crowdz marketplace is an interconnected network.  Each action can trigger additional actions automatically, enabling faster, more accurate transactions across the globe.

Pathover: AI Powers E-commerce for Grocery Retailers

Artificial intelligence for grocery store product delivery to consumers?  Not so far fetched any more.  A dedicated team of logistics experts have joined forces to crack the code in the slim margin grocery industry.  

The e-commerce and logistics startup Pathover, provides a service that minimizes the complexity and cost of online grocery shopping and delivery.  The Pathover service, Grocery 360 (G-360) acts as a one-stop shop for grocery retailers.  G-360 constructs a grocery product catalogue and connects it to customer-facing point-of-sale systems.  Grocery 260 then utilizes artificial intelligence to produce optimized schedules for grocery store product delivery to consumers.

Taking advantage of their logistics expertise, Pathover has developed a solution that is able to minimize delivery and does not require payment of set up fees, monthly subscription fees or commissions by the grocers.  This is possible because Pathover eliminates inefficiencies in the end-to-end delivery process.  By handling the logistics operations, grocers can focus on their core business and eliminate the need for capital investments in equipment and technology to handle payment processing, deliveries and more.

G-360 makes it easy for grocers by providing them with a user-friendly interface to automatically create e-commerce sites and integrate with point-of-sale systems. G-360 is also compatible with existing ecommerce frameworks.

Key to the success of Pathover is its inclusion of artificial intelligence, self-learning technology systems that can mine and search data to find the lowest cost delivery options, recognize data patterns such as sales performance and much more.  Pathover technology aids in automating manual processes to reduce labor, time and cost. Currently, Grocery E-commerce 360 has a database of more than 1 million product images and information.  The G-360 system can also automatically showcase the best products to sell to increase purchase frequency.  Chatbot functionality enables the system to communicate with consumers at every step of the ordering and delivery process.  G-360 also enables click-and-collect in addition to home delivery.

ShipChain:  Blockchain for Freight & Logistics

Across the globe, freight and logistics are essential elements of everyday life.  In the U.S., freight and logistics account for over $1.5 trillion annually.  Plagued by inefficiencies, labor shortages, complexity, regulatory challenges and cargo theft, the transportation, freight and logistics industry needs cost effective solutions.  After all, freight truly makes the world go ‘round.

Over the past decades, companies have started to embrace technology to help optimize transportation and logistics operations and reduce costs, yet the adoption has often been half-hearted and has not solved the most pressing problems.  Enter blockchain.   Across the supply chain logistics industry landscape, innovative start up companies are leveraging blockchain for more than cryptocurrency.

The ShipChain ecosystem can be used for all types of freight and enables track and trace of shipments from the time they leave the factory through the last mile delivery process to the consumer.

Using immutable, distributed blockchain ledger technology, ShipChain assures trustworthy, transparent contracts with comprehensive traceability.  This eliminates freight industry problems including but not limited to, lack of traceability, accountability, visibility, insufficient communication and middleman markup.

Using the blockchain platform, Ethereum, ShipChain creates smart contracts which digitize and automate transaction recordkeeping operations.  As an order is placed, the blockchain contract creates a Bill of Lading.  As contract conditions are met, the blockchain systems sets operations in motion, releasing payments from escrow once delivery has been made and the smart contract has been verified.

The entire shipping process can be automated using ShipChain, reducing the labor cost and processing time to the minimum.  This includes route planning and scheduling, contract management to outsourced transportation and logistics providers and much more.  ShipChain will determine the transportation method as well as the route for each specific shipment.  Throughout the entire logistics process, parties to the process will have full visibility and traceability, eliminating human error and the opportunity for fraud.  This eliminates the need for freight brokers completely.  Another upside is that the ShipChain solution also provides an incentive program to reward solid performance for on time deliveries and minimized idle time.

ShipChain requires the use of specialized tokens to complete transactions, common with blockchain platforms.  Known as “SHIP” tokens, the currency can be purchased using other forms of currency, including but not limited to cryptocurrency.

During its beta phase, ShipChain attracted substantial backing from notable investors and raised over $30 million in funding.  Accepted as a member of the Enterprise Ethereal Alliance (EEA), ShipChain is now included in the prestigious group which includes such trusted brands as Microsoft, Intel and MasterCard.

PINC:  IoT, Drones & Robotics for Warehouse & Yard Management

Across a variety of industries, businesses have recognized that transportation delays often start in the yards of manufacturing plants, warehouses and distribution centers.  During the shipment lifecycle, goods can traverse multiple yards, each with errors and inefficiencies. During this process, these problems become amplified, leading to multiple effects and delays across the supply chain.

PINC leverages a combination of the latest technologies including IoT, drones and cloud computing to provide a seamless flow of actionable data that can be used for decision making, process improvements and other purposes, providing immediate value. 

For companies in need of an innovative cloud solution for advanced yard management, PINC solutions provide the means to increase visibility, manage dock, assets, gate, yard and network operations efficiently.  Utilizing a considerable network of IoT sensors including GPS, RFID, optical and cellular technologies enables PINC to capture and provide real time information via a web API.  

PINC automates warehouse yard operational processes, can be integrated with existing systems and provides data rich reports to help optimize performance.

Will robots take over the world?  Not today, but they can take over the tedious task of conducting inventory checks.  One aspect of the PINC technology solution suite is inventory robotics, warehouse inventory drones that can be used on demand to conduct inventory checks and avoid the use of human workers.  PINC solutions are used in the automotive, food and beverage, 3PL, manufacturing and retail industries.


From Wall Street to Hong Kong, companies across the world are imagining a world in which blockchain technology can be used to solve some of the supply chain industry’s most pressing problems.  With venture capital, imagination and some motivated innovators, the future of blockchain technology seems bright.

Energy efficient humanoid robots working in blast chillers of cold storage warehouses?  Robot dogs, specialists in fetch robotics working in the warehouse?  What’s next?

Today’s supply chain is exploding with new, innovative ideas for hardware and software, alternative power sources and much more.  Maybe in a few years, every warehouse will have to have its own robotics team and mechanical engineer and warehouse workers will need to know robotics basics as part of day-to-day operations?  Quite possibly.

Blockchain technology may turn out to be the most valuable intellectual property on the planet (and in the digital world) if it is able to live up to its initial promise to do much more than enable people to buy bitcoins.  This invisible technology that’s changing the way the business world looks at transactions and traceability is already nearly ready for prime time.  Look out Satoshi Nakamoto.   Blockchain is currently being examined for well beyond the world wide supply chain, but also for digital currency, land registry, private key access control, smart contracts, medical records, financial transactions and central banking and food traceability.  Could this be as transformative as the world wide web?  Who knows, but you do not need to be a Harvard Business School graduate to see the potential in this technology and the significant benefits for companies that adopt blockchain.

Blockchain networks operate as immutable, transaction based distributed ledgers.  For those especially concerned about cybersecurity, permissioned blockchains have an access control layer that limits certain actions so that they can only be performed by specific identifiable participants.  This would enable businesses the ability to secure especially sensitive information such as medical records and financial transactions, improving the likelihood of blockchain adoption in these industries.

According to the “Summary of the 2018 White House Summit on AI for American Industry”, artificial intelligence, commonly referred to as AI is already in the process of transforming American life and industry.  Whether your perspective mirrors that of Bill Gates or Elon Musk,  one has to admit that using AI can help meet some of the greatest challenges faced by the supply chain industry today.

Is artificial intelligence useful in the supply chain?  No longer science fiction, artificial intelligence and machine learning are being used in voice recognition for natural language processing, as well as in software development, data management and operations research for warehouse, distribution centers and supply chain operations.  The use of AI enables systems to take Big Data for a wild ride, providing in depth, business intelligence including advanced analytics, predictive trends and forecasts, pattern recognition and more, highly relevant insight to supply chain operations and manufacturing.  Artificial intelligence technology is at the boiling point, ready to erupt and bring forth a world of more accurate forecasts, faster operations and new possibilities. Using AI enables operations to potentially operate faster and more accurately, saving time, resources and money.

From life-changing technologies and artificial intelligence to robotics and blockchain, the supply chain industry is evolving and improving its position to better respond to the fast-paced consumer demand for e-commerce omnichannel ordering and last mile delivery and changing supply chain.  That is good news for all of us.

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