US20180150793A1 - Automated retail supply chain and inventory management system - Google Patents

Automated retail supply chain and inventory management system Download PDF

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US20180150793A1
US20180150793A1 US15/826,045 US201715826045A US2018150793A1 US 20180150793 A1 US20180150793 A1 US 20180150793A1 US 201715826045 A US201715826045 A US 201715826045A US 2018150793 A1 US2018150793 A1 US 2018150793A1
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totes
sub
goods
plurality
method
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US15/826,045
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John G. Lert, Jr.
William J. Fosnight
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Alert Innovation Inc
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Alert Innovation Inc
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Publication of US20180150793A1 publication Critical patent/US20180150793A1/en
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    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65GTRANSPORT OR STORAGE DEVICES, e.g. CONVEYORS FOR LOADING OR TIPPING, SHOP CONVEYOR SYSTEMS OR PNEUMATIC TUBE CONVEYORS
    • B65G1/00Storing articles, individually or in orderly arrangement, in warehouses or magazines
    • B65G1/02Storage devices
    • B65G1/04Storage devices mechanical
    • B65G1/137Storage devices mechanical with arrangements or automatic control means for selecting which articles are to be removed
    • B65G1/1373Storage devices mechanical with arrangements or automatic control means for selecting which articles are to be removed for fulfilling orders in warehouses
    • B65G1/1378Storage devices mechanical with arrangements or automatic control means for selecting which articles are to be removed for fulfilling orders in warehouses the orders being assembled on fixed commissioning areas remote from the storage areas
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B25HAND TOOLS; PORTABLE POWER-DRIVEN TOOLS; MANIPULATORS
    • B25JMANIPULATORS; CHAMBERS PROVIDED WITH MANIPULATION DEVICES
    • B25J9/00Programme-controlled manipulators
    • B25J9/0096Programme-controlled manipulators co-operating with a working support, e.g. work-table
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B65CONVEYING; PACKING; STORING; HANDLING THIN OR FILAMENTARY MATERIAL
    • B65GTRANSPORT OR STORAGE DEVICES, e.g. CONVEYORS FOR LOADING OR TIPPING, SHOP CONVEYOR SYSTEMS OR PNEUMATIC TUBE CONVEYORS
    • B65G1/00Storing articles, individually or in orderly arrangement, in warehouses or magazines
    • B65G1/02Storage devices
    • B65G1/04Storage devices mechanical
    • B65G1/137Storage devices mechanical with arrangements or automatic control means for selecting which articles are to be removed
    • B65G1/1373Storage devices mechanical with arrangements or automatic control means for selecting which articles are to be removed for fulfilling orders in warehouses
    • BPERFORMING OPERATIONS; TRANSPORTING
    • B66HOISTING; LIFTING; HAULING
    • B66FHOISTING, LIFTING, HAULING OR PUSHING, NOT OTHERWISE PROVIDED FOR, e.g. DEVICES WHICH APPLY A LIFTING OR PUSHING FORCE DIRECTLY TO THE SURFACE OF A LOAD
    • B66F9/00Devices for lifting or lowering bulky or heavy goods for loading or unloading purposes
    • B66F9/06Devices for lifting or lowering bulky or heavy goods for loading or unloading purposes movable, with their loads, on wheels or the like, e.g. fork-lift trucks
    • B66F9/063Automatically guided
    • GPHYSICS
    • G05CONTROLLING; REGULATING
    • G05BCONTROL OR REGULATING SYSTEMS IN GENERAL; FUNCTIONAL ELEMENTS OF SUCH SYSTEMS; MONITORING OR TESTING ARRANGEMENTS FOR SUCH SYSTEMS OR ELEMENTS
    • G05B19/00Programme-control systems
    • G05B19/02Programme-control systems electric
    • G05B19/418Total factory control, i.e. centrally controlling a plurality of machines, e.g. direct or distributed numerical control [DNC], flexible manufacturing systems [FMS], integrated manufacturing systems [IMS], computer integrated manufacturing [CIM]
    • G05B19/4189Total factory control, i.e. centrally controlling a plurality of machines, e.g. direct or distributed numerical control [DNC], flexible manufacturing systems [FMS], integrated manufacturing systems [IMS], computer integrated manufacturing [CIM] characterised by the transport system
    • G05B19/41895Total factory control, i.e. centrally controlling a plurality of machines, e.g. direct or distributed numerical control [DNC], flexible manufacturing systems [FMS], integrated manufacturing systems [IMS], computer integrated manufacturing [CIM] characterised by the transport system using automatic guided vehicles [AGV]
    • GPHYSICS
    • G06COMPUTING; CALCULATING; COUNTING
    • G06QDATA PROCESSING SYSTEMS OR METHODS, SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES; SYSTEMS OR METHODS SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES, NOT OTHERWISE PROVIDED FOR
    • G06Q10/00Administration; Management
    • G06Q10/06Resources, workflows, human or project management, e.g. organising, planning, scheduling or allocating time, human or machine resources; Enterprise planning; Organisational models
    • G06Q10/063Operations research or analysis
    • G06Q10/0631Resource planning, allocation or scheduling for a business operation
    • G06Q10/06315Needs-based resource requirements planning or analysis
    • GPHYSICS
    • G06COMPUTING; CALCULATING; COUNTING
    • G06QDATA PROCESSING SYSTEMS OR METHODS, SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES; SYSTEMS OR METHODS SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES, NOT OTHERWISE PROVIDED FOR
    • G06Q10/00Administration; Management
    • G06Q10/08Logistics, e.g. warehousing, loading, distribution or shipping; Inventory or stock management, e.g. order filling, procurement or balancing against orders
    • G06Q10/083Shipping
    • G06Q10/0832Special goods or special handling procedures
    • GPHYSICS
    • G06COMPUTING; CALCULATING; COUNTING
    • G06QDATA PROCESSING SYSTEMS OR METHODS, SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES; SYSTEMS OR METHODS SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES, NOT OTHERWISE PROVIDED FOR
    • G06Q10/00Administration; Management
    • G06Q10/08Logistics, e.g. warehousing, loading, distribution or shipping; Inventory or stock management, e.g. order filling, procurement or balancing against orders
    • G06Q10/083Shipping
    • G06Q10/0833Tracking
    • GPHYSICS
    • G06COMPUTING; CALCULATING; COUNTING
    • G06QDATA PROCESSING SYSTEMS OR METHODS, SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES; SYSTEMS OR METHODS SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES, NOT OTHERWISE PROVIDED FOR
    • G06Q10/00Administration; Management
    • G06Q10/08Logistics, e.g. warehousing, loading, distribution or shipping; Inventory or stock management, e.g. order filling, procurement or balancing against orders
    • G06Q10/087Inventory or stock management, e.g. order filling, procurement, balancing against orders
    • GPHYSICS
    • G06COMPUTING; CALCULATING; COUNTING
    • G06QDATA PROCESSING SYSTEMS OR METHODS, SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES; SYSTEMS OR METHODS SPECIALLY ADAPTED FOR ADMINISTRATIVE, COMMERCIAL, FINANCIAL, MANAGERIAL, SUPERVISORY OR FORECASTING PURPOSES, NOT OTHERWISE PROVIDED FOR
    • G06Q50/00Systems or methods specially adapted for specific business sectors, e.g. utilities or tourism
    • G06Q50/28Logistics, e.g. warehousing, loading, distribution or shipping
    • GPHYSICS
    • G05CONTROLLING; REGULATING
    • G05DSYSTEMS FOR CONTROLLING OR REGULATING NON-ELECTRIC VARIABLES
    • G05D2201/00Application
    • G05D2201/02Control of position of land vehicles
    • G05D2201/0216Vehicle for transporting goods in a warehouse, factory or similar

Abstract

A system and method are disclosed for supplying one or more goods to a physical store location. The goods may be received at a distribution center (DC). At the DC, the goods may be decanted from their shipping containers into one or more sub-totes, which are contained within one or more product totes. The sub-totes may be transferred from the one or more product totes to one or more order totes based on a velocity of movement of the plurality of goods at the physical store location.

Description

    PRIORITY CLAIM
  • The present application claims priority to U.S. Provisional Patent Application No. 62/427,652, filed on Nov. 29, 2016, entitled “AUTOMATED RETAIL SUPPLY CHAIN AND INVENTORY MANAGEMENT SYSTEM,” which application is incorporated by reference herein in its entirety.
  • CROSS-REFERENCE TO RELATED APPLICATION(S)
  • This application relates to co-pending U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 62/423,614 entitled “Automated-Service Retail System and Method” and having a file date of Nov. 17, 2016, for all subject matter common to both applications. The disclosure of said provisional application is hereby incorporated by reference in its entirety.
  • FIELD OF THE INVENTION
  • The exemplary and non-limiting embodiments described herein relate generally to an automated retail supply chain storage and retrieval system, and more particularly to an inventory management system for use in supply chains in accordance with an illustrative embodiment.
  • BACKGROUND
  • In a chain of conventional self-service stores, the most cost-efficient method of replenishing store inventories, by far, is by the “case”, that is, to supply stores with the shipping cases of products received from supplying manufacturers. The alternative is to replenish by the “each” or “eaches”, i.e. to supply stores with individual product units in less-than-case quantities, but that method is so much more costly that universally the primary unit of replenishment in large-format stores like supermarkets and hypermarkets is by the cases shipped in pallet shipments.
  • In a conventional distribution model, the retailer receives pallets of cases at a distribution center (“DC”), the essential role of which is to replenish the inventories in a network of stores by periodically shipping to each store a specific set of cases of products that are needed (have been “ordered”) by that store. In the vast majority of DCs, those orders are fulfilled using a manual case-picking process in which pallets of cases are arrayed in aisles and human operators travel from one product pallet to another to transfer from each the number of cases ordered by the store, placing the selected cases on an order pallet to be shipped to the store. In some DCs, automated case-picking systems are used, the most advanced of which use mobile robots, such as those described in U.S. Pat. No. 8,425,173. Whether the order-fulfillment process is manual or automated, however, the only unit of ordering available to the stores for almost all products is a case. This means that whenever a store needs to replenish its inventory of a given product (represented by a Stock Keeping Unit or “SKU”), it will receive at a minimum the number of eaches of that SKU that are contained in the standard shipping case supplied by the manufacturer, regardless of the velocity of movement that product typically experiences in the store. The term “SKU” is utilized herein to refer to a single product or good (aka, each). However, the present invention is not limited to only items that have SKUs, as would be appreciated by those of skill in the art. SKU is merely utilized herein in association with the selected illustrative embodiment for purposes of clarity of description.
  • While operationally efficient, case-level replenishment forces the retailer to carry considerably more inventory in their stores than would be required if the only replenishment consideration were the avoidance of out-of-stocks. The smallest replenishment quantity needed to prevent out-of-stocks depends on the speed and certainty of replenishment deliveries from the DC, and can be defined as the Minimum Safe Replenishment Quantity (“MSRQ”) measured in number of average days of supply. While the number of eaches in an MSRQ is SKU-specific, the number of days of supply used to calculate MSRQs would typically be the same for all SKUs. For example, if a DC guarantees a delivery service-level of one day to a given store, the MSRQ for that store might only be four average days of supply, across all SKUs. An SKU that sells five units per day on average would therefore have an MSRQ of twenty eaches, but an SKU that sells only one unit per day would have an MSRQ of four eaches.
  • Except for a small number of “high-velocity” products, a typical shipping case of product might contain three weeks' worth or more of sales of that SKU. In other words, the store must allocate three to five times the amount of shelf space to that product than the minimum amount that would be needed purely to avoid out-of-stocks (e.g., the MSRQ for each product). Thus, if the store could reduce the replenishment quantity by a factor of three across all SKUs, the retailer could either reduce the size of its stores by two-thirds for the same assortment of products, or else increase the number of products offered by a factor of three.
  • SUMMARY
  • A method of supplying one or more goods to a physical store location is provided, the method comprising: receiving, at a distribution DC, the one or more goods from one or more suppliers, the distribution center (DC) comprising: a DC storage structure comprising a plurality of rack modules separated by aisles and having a plurality of storage levels, the DC storage structure storing a plurality of totes comprised of empty totes, product totes, or combinations thereof; and at least one DC mobile robot places totes into the DC storage structure, removing totes from the DC storage structure, and transporting totes throughout the storage structure; pickers at workstations depositing the one or more goods into an empty tote or a product tote, wherein when the one or more goods are placed into the empty tote the empty tote is then designated as a product tote and the one or more goods are designated as eaches, and when the one or more goods are placed into the product tote the one or more goods are designated as eaches; one of the at least one DC mobile robot transporting the product tote to the DC storage structure and placing the product tote into the DC storage structure for storage; and one of the at least one DC mobile robot retrieving the product tote from the DC storage structure and transporting the product tote to a shipping dock for shipment to a physical store, the physical store comprising: a building having an automated fulfillment section and a shopping section including a checkout section, and a delivery section; and the physical store receiving the product tote at the receiving section.
  • In one aspect, the physical store further comprises: a store storage structure comprising a plurality of rack modules separated by aisles and having a plurality of storage levels, the store storage structure storing a plurality of totes that are empty when empty storage totes, contain eaches when storage totes, contain orders when order totes, or combinations thereof; and at least one store mobile robot that propels itself horizontally and vertically throughout the store storage structure, placing totes into the store storage structure, removing totes from the store storage structure, and transporting totes.
  • In another aspect, an automated order fulfillment system at the physical store picks one or more fungible goods from the product tote eaches and organizes the one or more fungible goods into one or more order totes for delivery to customers in the physical store.
  • In another aspect, the method further comprises one or more sub-totes sized, dimensioned, and configured to fit within the empty tote and/or the product tote, and wherein a plurality of empty totes and/or product totes are sized, dimensioned, and configured to fit on a standard pallet.
  • In another aspect, a standard pallet comprises one or more of a North American pallet, a European pallet, an Australian pallet, or an Asian pallet.
  • In another aspect, the one or more sub-totes comprise one or more of ¼ sub-totes, ½ sub-totes, and/or ¾ sub-totes.
  • In another aspect, the step of the pickers at workstations depositing the one or more goods into an empty tote or a product tote further comprises the one or more goods being placed into the one or more sub-totes.
  • In another aspect, when the one or more goods are placed into the empty tote the one or more goods are placed within one or more sub-totes within the empty tote, and when the one or more goods are placed into the product tote the one or more goods are placed within one or more sub-totes within the product tote.
  • In another aspect, eaches contained in a single product tote have different stock keeping units (SKUs).
  • In another aspect, eaches contained in a single sub-tote have the same SKUs.
  • In another aspect, eaches contained in a single product tote have different SKUs.
  • In another aspect, eaches contained on a single pallet have different SKUs.
  • In another aspect, the step of receiving, at the DC, the one or more goods from one or more suppliers, further comprises de-trashing shipment cases from suppliers at decanting workstations of the DC.
  • In another aspect, the receiving, at the DC, the one or more goods from one or more suppliers further comprises the at least one mobile robot transporting shipping cases from the shipping dock to a decanting workstation.
  • In another aspect, the method may further comprise: tracking a number and location of eaches contained in each of the product totes in real time according to SKU; and instructing one of the pickers to allocate a predetermined quantity of eaches into the product tote.
  • In another aspect, the predetermined quantity of eaches is determined based on an inventory requirement at an associated automated store.
  • In another aspect, the inventory requirement is based on an automated real-time inventory count, based on SKUs, at the associated automated store.
  • In another aspect, the inventory requirement is based on a human order from the associated automated store.
  • In another aspect, the inventory requirement is based on a sales history at the associated automated store.
  • In another aspect, the pickers are human.
  • In another aspect, the pickers are mobile robots.
  • In accordance with another aspect, a method is provided, comprising: a DC storage structure comprising a plurality of rack modules separated by aisles and having a plurality of storage levels, the DC storage structure storing a plurality of totes comprised of empty totes, product totes, or combinations thereof; and at least one DC mobile robot places totes into the DC storage structure, removing totes from the DC storage structure, and transporting totes throughout the storage structure; the DC receiving, from a physical store, a request for replenishment of a desired quantity of eaches that is less than a quantity conventionally required to fill a pallet of eaches; tasking the at least one DC mobile robot to retrieve one or more sub-totes from the DC storage structure containing the desired quantity of eaches, the at least one DC mobile robot retrieving the one or more sub-totes and placing them in one or more product totes for delivery to the physical store.
  • In accordance with another aspect, the method further comprises the at least one DC mobile robot transporting the one or more product totes to a shipping dock for pickup and transfer to the physical store.
  • In accordance with another aspect, eaches contained in a single product tote of the one or more product totes have different stock keeping units (SKUs).
  • In accordance with another aspect, eaches contained in a single sub-tote of the one or more sub-totes have the same SKUs.
  • In accordance with another aspect, the method further comprises the physical store receiving the one or more product totes at a receiving section.
  • In accordance with another aspect, the physical store comprises a building having a receiving section, an automated fulfillment section, a shopping section including a checkout section, and a delivery section.
  • In accordance with another aspect, the method further comprises the physical store receiving the product tote at the receiving section.
  • In accordance with another aspect, an automated order fulfillment system at the physical store picks one or more fungible goods from the product tote eaches and organizes the one or more fungible goods into one or more order totes for delivery to customers in the physical store.
  • In accordance with another aspect, a plurality of physical stores are in networked communication with the DC, enabling replenishment of eaches based on real-time demand from the plurality of physical stores and wherein the plurality of physical stores utilize sub-totes and totes of a standardized size.
  • In accordance with another aspect, the method is fully automated without human interaction.
  • BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS
  • These and other characteristics of the present disclosed embodiments will be more fully understood by reference to the following detailed description in conjunction with the attached drawings, in which:
  • FIG. 1 shows a schematic of an automated distribution center in accordance with an example embodiment of the present invention;
  • FIG. 2 is a flow-chart showing the flow of product through a retailer's supply chain under the present disclosed embodiment;
  • FIG. 3A and FIG. 3B show an automated decanting workstation within the distribution center;
  • FIG. 4 shows an automated Sub-tote-picking workstation within the distribution center;
  • FIG. 5A and FIG. 5B show details of the I/O interface at the distribution center, including the portable racks that hold the replenishment P-Totes for transport to the automated stores; and
  • FIG. 6A and FIG. 6B show details of a semi-automatic or manual decanting workstation.
  • DETAILED DESCRIPTION
  • FIGS. 1-6B illustrate example embodiments of a method and system according to the present invention. Although the present invention will be described with reference to the example embodiment or embodiments illustrated in the figures, it should be understood that many alternative forms can embody the present invention. One of skill in the art will additionally appreciate different ways to alter the parameters of the embodiment(s) disclosed, such as the size, shape, or type of elements or materials, in a manner still in keeping with the spirit and scope of the present invention.
  • Compared to a self-service store, the automated retail store as taught in U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 62/423,614 entitled “Automated-Service Retail System and Method” filed Nov. 17, 2016, (hereby incorporated by reference herein in its entirety), enables dramatic increases in both space and labor efficiencies in the construction and the operation of a retail store, due to the replacement of the self-service packaged-goods market with a robotic each-pick system such as the one taught in “Storage and Retrieval System”. A key element of that each-pick system is the “Tote/Sub-tote” containment architecture in which the primary storage container (“tote”) can be subdivided into multiple compartments that each contain a different product through the use of a secondary container (“sub-tote”). The key reason for this architecture, in preference to the widely used alternative method of divider partitions, is that the totes and sub-totes are designed to be manipulated by robots, so that eaches can be transferred between totes simply by transferring the sub-totes containing said eaches.
  • This capability also makes possible a completely automated method of replenishing a network of retail stores, especially a network of automated retail stores, that is a significant improvement over the conventional method of replenishing stores with the shipping cases of products received from the manufacturers.
  • Because inventory is relatively high in traditional storage facilities based on case level inventory storage and other inefficiencies, the replenishment times or frequencies are long, whereas with the present embodiment inventory may be smaller and replenished more frequently and with more granularities, such that inventory accuracy is improved with reduced inventory levels as will be described herein. The present example embodiment reduces inventory and associated storage space requirements by leveraging a tote/sub-tote containment architecture of the automated each-picking system used in automated stores to change the process of fulfilling store-replenishment orders at the DC. In accordance with an example embodiment of the present invention, the DC is an automated DC. In the method and system of the present invention, cases of product arriving on pallets from one or more suppliers or supplying manufacturers are first opened and the contained eaches are transferred to sub-totes at one or more decanting workstations. This process is called “decanting” and is preferably performed as soon as cases are received at the DC. While not essential to the disclosed embodiment, it may be advantageous to automate this decanting process so that robots perform the transfer of goods from the cases to the sub-totes rather than humans. As would be appreciated by one skilled in the art, the present invention is configured to perform automated, semi-automated, or human decanting.
  • Upon completion of the decanting process, the sub-totes filled during the decanting process are loaded into “product totes”. Since multiple cases of the same goods or SKUs will be typically be decanted consecutively (having arrived on the same pallet), these product totes will typically be single product or single SKU totes. That is, all of the eaches in the tote will be the same SKU, though they will typically be distributed over multiple sub-totes within the tote.
  • A feature of the example embodiment is that the eaches of a given SKU can be decanted into multiple sizes of sub-totes, such that they are not limited to a single size sub-tote. The replenishment quantity for each SKU can therefore vary by store based on a calculated MSRQ for that SKU in each store. A further feature of the example embodiment is that the sub-totes contain some number of eaches less than an amount that comes shipped in a case, and including down to a single each per sub-tote.
  • In accordance with an example embodiment of the present invention, once a tote has been filled to capacity with product, it is then transferred by mobile robots from the decanting workstation and placed into a DC storage structure where the inventory remains available to fill replenishment orders from remote stores. The order-fulfillment process for those orders is nearly identical to the each-picking process performed at the store to fulfill customer orders, as discussed in U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 62/423,614 incorporated herein. In particular, mobile robots bring product totes (“P-totes”), from the storage structure, and order totes (“O-totes”) to a workstation where eaches are transferred from the P-totes to O-totes. The difference is that in this example embodiment the transfer is performed by a mobile robot handling sub-totes containing the eaches instead of human or robotic pickers handling eaches directly. As would be appreciated by one skilled in the art, this process can similarly be performed by human pickers without departing from the scope of the present invention.
  • The fulfilled O-totes, each typically containing multiple SKUs contained in multiple single SKU sub-totes, are shipped from the DC to a network of automated stores supported by the DC. At each store, the delivered O-totes are received as P-totes and inducted directly into the automated each-pick system operating within the store, where they are held in storage ready to allocate eaches to fill customer orders as discussed in U.S. Provisional Patent Application Ser. No. 62/423,614 incorporated herein.
  • The automated retail supply chain of the present example embodiment includes an automated DC and a network of automated retail stores which are supplied with replenishment inventory from the DC. FIG. 1 shows in schematic form an automated DC, the details of which are described in greater detail below.
  • FIG. 2 shows the flow of product through the automated retail supply chain according to the example embodiment. The product flow starts with the arrival at the automated DC of pallets containing cases shipped by one or more suppliers. Typically, the pallets are single product or single SKU pallets, i.e. all cases of product are the same SKU. As would be appreciated by one skilled in the art, some pallets can be “rainbow” pallets comprising multiple single-SKU layers, but this minor complexity in the process is ignored for purposes of this disclosure. Upon arrival, operators must validate that the SKU is known, i.e. the identity and other attributes of the product have been captured previously in the system, and that the actual product received are consistent with those registered SKU attributes. This step is substantially similar or identical to what happens in a manual or automated case-picking DC supporting self-service stores, but after SKU validation the current disclosed embodiment departs from such stores. The second step in the flow is to send the received cases immediately to a decanting workstation, where they are transferred into sub-totes, which are themselves contained within totes.
  • The flowchart illustrates where a truck or other suitable transport may arrive at a distribution center, for example, with eaches of goods in cases on pallets. The pallets may be scanned to identify case information. A decision is made as to what type of decanting workstation the pallet is to be directed and the pallet is directed to the appropriate decanting workstation. For example, the decanting workstation can be one of a manual, automatic, or semi-automatic decanting workstation. A first robot transfers case(s) from the pallet to a box opener where the box is automatically opened/cut and the first robot disposes of the top of the case. A second robot selects the correct corresponding size sub-tote and places the sub-tote in a tote (e.g., a product tote). The second robot then place eaches from the open case into the sub-tote and when the tote is full of filled sub-totes a mobile robot stores the completed (or partially completed) tote in the storage rack system. The selection of sub-tote size(s) and/or mix of sizes can be a function of the product velocity requirements for a given store to be supplied. For example, mixes of sub-tote sizes may be provided as a function of different stores to be supplied based on product velocity requirements of those stores. Each of these steps is represented in the flow of FIG. 2 as shown above the receiving line.
  • When an order is received from a given store for goods or creating demand for goods, the order fulfillment process depicted in FIG. 2 is initiated. The order fulfillment beings with a mobile robot being dispatched to transport an empty (or partially empty) order tote to the picking workstation. Other mobile robots may then (or concurrently or otherwise) bring product totes with the sub-totes to the picking workstation where a picking robot transfers entire sub-totes to the order tote(s) to fulfill the order. As would be appreciated by one skilled in the art, the sub-totes may be mixed based on the desired amount of inventory required for a given store. In accordance with an example embodiment of the repent invention, a decision is provided with respect to when the order is needed and/or when the order tote ships, whether the order tote is to be directed to a portable rack if the order tote is needed immediately, or if the order tote is to be directed to short/long term storage if the order tote is needed in the future. When a given portable rack is full or at the appropriate level to meet one or more order(s), it may be released to a given truck or transport for transportation to a networked store. In accordance with an example embodiment of the repent invention, the order totes or racks may be directed to storage or the truck or transport based on a determination as to whether a truck or transport is currently available. The flowchart is illustrative of a potential sequence as described herein and within the chart where alternative combinations may be provided. Here, scheduling and dispatching decisions of product totes, order totes and otherwise may be made based on order and sub tote size and the timing of an order receipt and when the order needs to be fulfilled and optimized.
  • FIG. 3A and FIG. 3B show detailed representations of the decanting workstation. As shown in FIG. 3A, a mobile pallet robot transfers a pallet with cases of goods to a decanting workstation. When exiting the truck, bar code scanners, radio frequency identification (RFID) readers or other identification technology is used to identify the cases and their contained eaches of goods. The destination decanting workstation may be selected based on the cases and/or eaches the decanting workstation is best configured to handle, as discussed with respect to FIG. 2.
  • In accordance with an example embodiment of the present invention, a first articulated arm robot uses a camera mounted on its distal link to identify the position of cases situated on the pallet. The first robot adjusts its variable width gripper to the size of the case previously identified, and uses its camera to grip and lift a case from the pallet and place it onto a first conveyor.
  • The case is conveyed into a box cutter that uses blades on a rotating head to cut along the bottom perimeter of the case. The box cutter uses the identification of the case, along with a camera to guide the rotating head around the perimeter of the case. Alternatively, the box cutter may use stationary blades that cut the bottom of the box as it is conveyed in two orthogonal directions through the box cutter.
  • Once the case is cut along its bottom perimeter, it is conveyed onto a second orthogonal conveyor where the top and sides of the case are lifted upward and off by the first articulated arm robot. The first robot disposes the top and sides of the case onto a third cardboard conveyor shown underneath the second conveyor. Thereafter, the cardboard is transported on a third conveyor to a location where it is collected to be recycled.
  • A second articulated arm robot uses a variable width end-effector to load a sub-tote, from stacks of variable sized sub-totes, and places the selected sub-tote into a tote. The size of the sub-tote selected corresponds to the identification of the eaches to be transferred and the desired quantity of eaches to be stored within a sub-tote. For example, the quantity of eaches placed in a sub-tote is calculated based on the inventory rules and velocity of the particular eaches at the retail stores served by the automated DC. Sub-totes of varying size and configuration may be placed within a tote to maximize storage density and decanting efficiency. The identification mark (e.g. alphanumeric or bar code) is read by the camera mounted on the second robot and stored.
  • Once the sub-tote is placed into the tote, the second robot adjusts its variable pitch vacuum cup gripper to the eaches to be picked. The second robot uses a camera mounted on its distal link to position the grip and transfer the eaches from the opened case into the sub-tote. As would be appreciated by one skilled in the art, each picking grippers other than vacuum may be alternatively used by the second robot (e.g. mechanical, conformal, etc.). The second robot may also be configured to automatically change gripper types based on the eaches to be transferred.
  • After all eaches are transferred from the open case, the second conveyor transports the bottom of the case off of its end, and down onto the third cardboard transporting conveyor.
  • A key feature of the example embodiment of the present invention is the ability to load the eaches of a given SKU into sub-totes of different sizes at the decanting workstation(s), which allows the replenishment quantity of each SKU to vary by store. In accordance with an example embodiment of the present invention, a standard replenishment quantity (“SRQ”) can be calculated for each SKU for each store, based on an MSRQ for that SKU/store. As an example, if a ⅛-sub-tote can hold four eaches of a given SKU (“XYZ”), a ¼ sub-tote can hold eight eaches of that SKU, and a ½ sub-tote can hold sixteen eaches of that SKU. Furthermore, in this example, the MSRQ for all stores supported by a given DC is five average days of supply across all SKUs. In this example, then, the SRQ for SKU XYZ will be a ¼ sub-tote containing four eaches for all stores that sell no more than 5.6 XYZ eaches per week (4/( 5/7)=5.6). For all stores that sell between 5.7 and 11.2 eaches per average week, the SRQ would be a ¼ sub-totes containing eight eaches, and stores that sell between 11.3 and 22.4 XYZ eaches per average week would use an SRQ of ½ sub-totes when ordering SKU XYZ from the DC. Note that the SRQ can also be a combination of multiple sub-totes. For example, if a store sells between 22.5 and 28.0 eaches per average week of SKU XYZ, the SRQ would be a combination of ½ sub-tote containing sixteen eaches plus a ¼ sub-tote containing four eaches.
  • In accordance with an example embodiment of the present invention, the distribution of sub-tote sizes into which a total number of eaches of a given SKU are loaded at the decanting workstation should generally align with the distribution of sub-tote sizes produced by summing all of the SRQs for that SKU across all stores supported by the DC. For example, if there are one-hundred stores supported by a DC, and a summation of all of the sub-tote sizes in the SRQs for those stores for SKU XYZ yields forty ¼-sub-totes, sixty ¼-sub-totes, and ten ½-sub-totes, when cases of SKU XYZ are being decanted, then, 36% of the sub-totes into which the eaches are loaded should be ⅛-sub-totes (40/110=0.36), 55% should be ¼-sub-totes (60/110=0.55), and 9% should be ½-sub-totes (10/110=0.09).
  • The next step in the material flow according to the illustrative embodiment is to place totes loaded with filled sub-totes into the storage structure, and this step is performed by one or more mobile robots. In particular, once a tote is filled with sub-totes containing eaches, the filled tote is retrieved and placed in the storage structure or rack by a mobile robot as described in U.S. patent application Ser. No. 15/171,802 having a filing date of Jun. 2, 2016 and entitled “Storage and Retrieval System” hereby incorporated by reference herein in its entirety. These Totes may be the product totes used in the order-fulfillment process.
  • The next step in the material flow is the order-fulfillment process in which replenishment sub-totes are transferred from product totes to order totes, and this process is also performed entirely robotically.
  • The mobile robots deliver the totes (the product totes) containing sub-totes containing eaches to a picking workstation as shown in FIG. 4. mobile robots also deliver empty totes (the order totes) to the picking workstation. A third articulated arm robot is used to transfer ordered sub-totes containing eaches to the empty order tote. Once an order tote has been filled with sub-totes containing eaches, a mobile robot can either store the tote in the storage structure or transport it directly to a temporarily affixed portable storage rack, shown in FIGS. 5A and 5B.
  • The next step in the material flow according to the present disclosed embodiment is to ship the filled replenishment totes from the DC to the stores.
  • FIG. 5A shows a portable rack temporarily affixed to the storage structure, a portable storage rack being transported to a truck, and a portable storage rack located within a truck destined for a retail store. A mobile robot is shown transferring a loaded tote to the portable rack temporarily affixed to the storage rack.
  • The portable storage racks are transported using a mobile rack robot configured to move the portable storage racks. In particular, the mobile rack robot positions itself underneath the portable storage rack, lifts the portable storage rack slightly, and uses computer navigation to move the portable storage rack to a destination. The mobile rack robot is capable of entering the space underneath the portable storage rack either between its support legs at its narrow end, or between its support legs along its length. The mobile rack robot may alternatively be controlled by a human operator.
  • The portable storage rack may alternatively be manually transported on wheels attached to it, or using a human-guided wheeled lift.
  • The open side of the portable storage rack where mobile robots are able to load totes that have latches that secure totes from sliding out of their storage position when not affixed to the storage structure. Moreover, the top of the trailer may have beams along the length of the trailer which help guide the portable storage racks into the trailer and prevent them from tipping during transport.
  • FIG. 5B shows the rail structure that the mobile robots travel on when placing or picking totes from the portable storage racks. Registration features such as registration pins or kinematic couplings may be positioned at the bottom of the rail structure to correctly position the portable storage rack to the rail structure and storage structure.
  • The rail structure and storage structure at the retail store contain the same registration features to permit the portable storage rack to be quickly and accurately aligned with it, and totes transferred into the storage structure. After the incoming full totes have been transferred in the store's storage structure, empty totes with empty sub-totes can be transferred onto the portable storage rack for transport back to the automated DC.
  • In the scenario where ample space is not available to transport the totes and sub-totes back to the automated DC on the portable storage rack, the store may nest the sub-totes and totes using an automated picking workstation normally used for picking eaches or transferring sub-totes between totes to increase storage density, i.e. defragmenting the stored sub-totes. The nested totes and sub-totes may be placed on the truck for delivery back to the automated DC.
  • Once at the retail the store, the portable storage rack is removed from the truck and affixed to the storage structure at the store. At the store, mobile robots transfer the totes with sub-totes containing eaches into the storage structure of the automated each picking system operating within the store.
  • The remaining steps in the product flow according to the disclosed embodiment involve the fulfillment of customer orders at each-picking workstations, and the transfer of completed orders to customers, as described in U.S. patent application Ser. No. 15/171,802 having a filing date of Jun. 2, 2016 and entitled “Storage and Retrieval System” which is hereby incorporated by reference in its entirety.
  • While the decanting workstation, picking workstation, storage rack and portable rack are all illustrated and described as singular for simplicity, it is expected an automated distribution center contains multiples of each that interact.
  • FIGS. 6A and 6B show a manual decanting workstation. Essentially everywhere the articulated robots are provided, humans may be provided alone or in combination, and the pallet and rack mobile robots could be replaced with “pallet jacks” pulled by humans. The robot least easily replaced by a human may be the mobile robot due to speed and volume constraints among others.
  • As utilized herein, the terms “robot” and “bot” are utilized interchangeably herein in accordance with their conventional meanings, specifically a useful machine or device, namely, a programmable, multifunctional device capable of moving material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through various programmed motions for the performance of a variety of tasks, allocations, designations, or the like; and/or the machine or device being capable of carrying out a simple or complex series of actions; and/or the machine or device being capable of performing tasks that may or may not otherwise be work of a person; and/or the machine or device being a programmable mechanical device capable of performing tasks and interacting with its environment, without the aid of human interaction; and the machine or device being capable of operating automatically or being controlled by a computer.
  • Numerous modifications and alternative embodiments of the present invention will be apparent to those skilled in the art in view of the foregoing description. Accordingly, this description is to be construed as illustrative only and is for the purpose of teaching those skilled in the art the best mode for carrying out the present invention. Details of the structure may vary substantially without departing from the spirit of the present invention, and exclusive use of all modifications is reserved. Within this specification embodiments have been described in a way which enables a clear and concise specification to be written, but it is intended and will be appreciated that embodiments may be variously combined or separated without parting from the invention. It is intended that the present invention be limited only to the extent required by the applicable rules of law.

Claims (40)

What is claimed is:
1. A method of supplying goods to a physical store location, the method comprising:
receiving, at a distribution center (DC), a plurality of goods;
transferring one or more goods of the plurality of goods received at the DC into one or more sub-totes configured to fit within a tote, wherein a quantity of the one or more goods transferred into the one or more sub-totes is dictated by a velocity of movement of the one or more goods at the physical store location; and
making the one or more sub-totes available for shipment within a tote from the DC to the physical store location.
2. The method of claim 1, wherein the step of transferring the one or more goods of the plurality of goods into one or more sub-totes is performed by a robot.
3. The method of claim 1, wherein the step of transferring the one or more goods of the plurality of goods into one or more sub-totes is performed manually.
4. The method of claim 1, wherein the step of transferring the one or more goods of the plurality of goods into one or more sub-totes comprises the step of selecting a size of the one or more sub-totes based on the velocity of movement of the one or more goods at the physical store location.
5. The method of claim 1, further comprising the step of tracking an identifier for the one or more goods transferred into the one or more sub-totes.
6. The method of claim 1, further comprising the step of transferring the one or more sub-totes into one or more product totes, and storing the product tote.
7. The method of claim 6, further comprising the step of retrieving the one or more product totes from storage, and transferring the one or more sub-totes from the one or more product totes to one or more order totes.
8. The method of claim 1, wherein the step of transferring the one or more goods of the plurality of goods into one or more sub-totes comprises the step of transferring a plurality of different goods into a plurality of sub-totes in one order tote, the plurality of different goods selected based on inventory needs of the physical store location.
9. The method of claim 1, further comprising the step of tracking, in real time at the DC, the velocity of movement of the one or more goods in the physical store location.
10. The method of claim 1, wherein the velocity of movement which dictates the quantity of the one or more goods transferred into the one or more sub-totes comprises the rate at which the one or more goods are being sold at the physical store location.
11. The method of claim 1, wherein the velocity of movement which dictates the quantity of the one or more goods transferred into the one or more sub-totes comprises the stock level of the one or more goods at a given instant in time at the physical store location.
12. A method of supplying goods to a physical store location, the method comprising:
receiving, at a distribution center (DC), a plurality of goods;
transferring the plurality of goods into a plurality of sub-totes in, the plurality of sub-totes being different sizes;
transferring one or more sub-totes of the plurality of sub-totes into one or more order totes, wherein selection of one or more sizes of the one or more sub-totes is dictated by a velocity of movement of the one or more goods at the physical store location; and
making the one or more order totes available for shipment from the DC to the physical store location.
13. The method of claim 12, further comprising the step of transferring the plurality of goods to a decanting station upon receipt and prior to the step of transferring the plurality of goods into a plurality of sub-totes in a product tote.
14. The method of claim 13, wherein transferring the plurality of goods to the decanting station is performed by a mobile robot.
15. The method of claim 12, wherein the step of transferring the plurality of goods into the plurality of sub-totes is performed at a decanting station by an automated robot.
16. The method of claim 12, wherein the step of transferring the plurality of goods into the plurality of sub-totes is performed manually at a decanting station.
17. The method of claim 12, wherein the plurality of different goods contained in the plurality of sub-totes have the same stock keeping units (SKUs).
18. The method of claim 17, further comprising the step of tracking SKUs for the one or more goods contained in the one or more sub-totes.
19. The method of claim 18, wherein placing goods with the same SKU in a sub-tote, and tracking that SKU allows tracking of inventory expiration dates at the physical store location.
20. The method of claim 12, further comprising the steps of transferring the one or more sub-totes into a product tote and storing the product tote in a storage location after the step of transferring the one or more sub-totes into the product tote, and before the step of transferring one or more sub-totes into one or more order totes.
21. The method of claim 20, wherein the step of storing a product tote is performed by mobile robot.
22. The method of claim 20, further comprising the step of transferring the product tote from the storage location to a workstation, the step of transferring the one or more sub-totes from the product tote into the one or more order totes being performed at the workstation.
23. The method of claim 12, wherein the step of transferring the one or more sub-totes into the one or more order totes is performed by a robot.
24. The method of claim 12, wherein the step of transferring the one or more sub-totes into the one or more order totes is performed manually.
25. The method of claim 12, wherein the step of making the one or more order totes available for shipment comprises the step of transferring the one or more order totes including the one or more sub-totes from a workstation to a shipping area by a mobile robot.
26. A method of supplying goods to a physical store location, the method comprising:
storing, at a storage location within a distribution center (DC), a plurality of goods in one or more sub-totes in one or more product totes;
transferring, at a workstation in the DC, the one or more sub-totes from the one or more product totes into one or more order totes, wherein selection of the one or more sub-totes into the one or more order totes is dictated by a velocity of movement of the plurality of goods at the physical store location; and
making the one or more order totes available for shipment from the DC to the physical store location.
27. The method of claim 26, further comprising the steps of tracking a quantity and location of the plurality of goods stored in each of the product totes in real time according to SKU.
28. The method of claim 26, wherein the velocity of movement which dictates a quantity of the one or more goods transferred into the one or more sub-totes comprises the rate at which the one or more goods are being sold at the physical store location.
29. The method of claim 26, wherein the velocity of movement which dictates a quantity of the one or more goods transferred into the one or more sub-totes comprises the stock level of the one or more goods at a given instant in time at the physical store location.
30. The method of claim 26, further comprising the step transferring the one or more product totes from the storage location to the workstation by a mobile robot.
31. The method of claim 26, wherein the one or more product totes comprise a first group of one or more product totes, the method further comprising the step of transferring the sub-totes from the first group of one or more product totes to a second group of one or more product totes to improve product tote storage efficiency.
32. A method of supplying goods to a physical store location, the method comprising:
storing, in storage locations at a distribution center (DC), a plurality of goods in a plurality of sub-totes in one or more product totes, the plurality of sub-totes comprising sub-totes of different sizes;
transferring the one or more product totes from the storage locations to a workstation by a mobile robot;
transferring one or more order totes to the workstation by a mobile robot;
transferring at least one sub-tote of the one or more sub-totes in the one or more product totes into the one or more order totes, wherein a size of the at least one sub-tote transferred into the one or more order totes is based on a velocity of movement of the goods in the at least one sub-tote at the physical store location; and
making the one or more order totes available for shipment from the DC to the physical store location.
33. A method of supplying goods to a physical store location, the method comprising:
receiving, at a distribution center (DC), a plurality of goods;
transferring a plurality of different goods of the plurality of goods received at the DC into a plurality of different sub-totes in one or more order totes, wherein types of goods in the plurality of different goods, and sizes of the plurality of different sub-totes, are selected based on a velocity of movement of the plurality of different goods at the physical store location; and
making the one or more order totes available for shipment from the DC to the physical store location.
34. The method of claim 33, wherein the step of transferring a plurality of different goods into a plurality of different sub-totes in one or more order totes comprises the step of transferring a plurality of different sub-totes into a single order tote.
35. The method of claim 34, wherein the plurality of different goods in the plurality of different sub-totes in the single order tote have different stock keeping units.
36. The method of claim 34, wherein goods contained in a single sub-tote have the same stock keeping units.
37. A method of supplying goods to a physical store location, the method comprising:
transferring, at a workstation in the DC, a plurality of sub-totes including one or more goods into a plurality of order totes, wherein selection of the plurality of sub-totes into the plurality of order totes is dictated by a velocity of movement of the plurality of goods at the physical store location;
transferring the plurality of order totes to storage locations on a portable rack;
making the portable rack comprising a plurality of order totes available for shipment from the DC to the physical store location.
38. The method of claim 37, wherein the step of transferring the plurality of order totes to storage locations on a portable rack is performed by an automated robot.
39. The method of claim 37, wherein the step of transferring the plurality of order totes to storage locations on a portable rack is performed manually.
40. The method of claim 37, wherein the step of making the portable rack available for shipment comprises the step of transferring the portable rack to a shipment area by a mobile robot.
US15/826,045 2016-11-29 2017-11-29 Automated retail supply chain and inventory management system Pending US20180150793A1 (en)

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