2014
01.28

Amazon Technologies and Amazon’s Lab 126 are endless sources of wonder for patent followers. Last November, George Anders posted an interesting note in Forbes entitled “Amazon’s 1,263 Patents Reveal Retailing’s High-Tech Future” that discussed how Amazon looks at retail as an engineering problem to be solved.

This week, Amazon Technologies was awarded 21 patents. One of interest to the future of warehouse automation is 8,639,382 entitled, “Robotic Induction in Materials Handling Facilities”. Reading this patent’s background section is like reading a primer for how a robotic-enabled warehouse will select and deliver products to a worker in a fixed station for processing and packing. We should remember that Amazon bought Kiva Systems in early 2012. Kiva was the leading supplier of robotics to ecommerce fulfillment companies. Here is how robotics is changing what goes on in ecommerce fulfillment warehouses like Amazon’s. Today, humans go to the storage locations to pick products to fulfill a customer order. What a robotics-enabled warehouse will do is turn the human wanderer into a fixed-location worker, and to visualize this, think of workers on a production line in a factory: the product comes to them and they add their specific “unit of value” before passing the product on to the next station. For a good understanding of this change, click on the Kiva’s mobile-robotic fulfillment System demo and watch the video.

The point of robotics in warehouses is to reduce human inefficiencies, or eliminate the human factor completely. Labor is the highest-cost factor in warehouse operations. With Patent 8,639,384, “Systems & Methods for Receiving Shipment Parcels,” Amazon takes a technology-based step toward the elimination of humans in the warehouse’s Receiving process. Using cameras and scanners, the patented process can identify an inbound parcel’s order information and properly receive it, and route it to a put away location. You have heard the old programmer’s phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out,” and this has been the mantra of warehouse managers since warehousing was invented. If you can’t properly receive goods in, then chances are you will ship the wrong product to the customer. With the customer abandonment rates in ecommerce fulfillment so high, and the diminishing reading abilities of humans on the Receiving dock, finding an automated solution to eliminate the “garbage in” problem is the Holy Grail. Amazon may have just patented it.

You may be asking at this point why such an emphasis on warehousing. The answer is that “back of the business” functions such as warehousing are catching up with “front of the business” technology investments at a very fast pace. For years, retailers and brands invested heavily in customer-facing applications, what we call B2C (business-to-consumer) technologies. What has become very clear over the past few years is that as more consumers buy online, the accuracy and timeliness of order fulfillment is the make or break customer experience that ensures repeat customer business. Amazon has invested significantly to ensure that you always get what you ordered, and as soon as you want it, even same day in select cities. Getting it right in fulfillment is serious business.

Sometimes, the really interesting awards slip right past you because they are described in a way that simply does not register with your brain. Here’s one that has interesting implications for the application of behavioral analytics to social network experiences and the stimulation of purchasing impulses. Patent 8,639,702, mind-numbingly entitled “System and Method to classify and apply behavioral stimuli potentials to data in realtime,” was granted to BehaviorMatrix based in Blue Bell, Pa. If you dig deep into the description of this microprocessor-based patent, you’ll find the “I’m eating the pizza and it is delicious” scenario; take inputs like this captured from social networks, apply  value-based assessments that can be used to characterize which of the five human senses that such a phrase included, and use this set of behavior analytics to predict the power of such inputs to stimulate behavior in others. Take a look at the company’s profile by clicking on its name, and you can see where this could lead for brands seeking more effective ways to enhance the customer experience.

My favorite design of the week is for those couples who believe that riding their (insert your favorite motorcycle) together is a bonding experience. Patent 8,635,712, “Tandem Wind Breaker,” awarded to a gentleman in Coraopolis, Pa., makes that bonding experience just a bit cozier. And given the frigid temperatures gripping the U.S. recently, I’d say that it is a must have item for those hardy enough to be out riding.