In late 2014, someone posted on the email list of Philly Startup Leaders asking for a favor. They were looking for a company with a warehouse in the area, where they could test a new technology they were working on.
That someone was Tom Panzarella, Founder and CEO of Philadelphia-based Love Park Robotics. His company explores and commercializes robotic technology. They’ve done trailblazing work in the field of automated assistive technology – picture wheelchairs that can guide themselves through doorways, allowing a greater degree of freedom for the disabled.
Tom was exploring a new concept – building a virtual, 3D map of a warehouse’s interior, capturing in data form every shelving post that comprises the complete physical layout of the space. The vision built upon the same solutions Tom’s team implemented for wheelchairs. This time, the target was automating the inner-workings of an active warehouse.
We’ve spent more time in warehouses than most, and have seen just about every degree of automation out there. That includes zero automation – inviting paperwork headaches, slow and inefficient processes, and an unspeakable amount of inaccuracy – and well-designed operations that integrate bar code scanning, RFID readers, pick-to-light systems and more.
But Tom’s idea took it to another level, and we wanted to learn more about it.
We called Tom Bolton, Sr., owner of Guidon Corporation, a Mount Laurel, NJ-based 30-year old distributor of fasteners, and longtime Distribution One customer. His growing operation is gradually pursuing warehouse automation, and we had a feeling he’d be interested in seeing some ground-floor tech in motion.
On site, Tom Panzarella and a team of two fellow researchers arrived with an unexpected piece of mobile technology – a tricycle. Of course, Tom’s trike was outfitted with next-generation LIDAR, real-time computing capabilities, and video-decoding algorithms that would make your head spin.
We watched as the tricked-out trike made its way up and down the aisles at a less-than-hurried clip. The real magic, of course, was invisible to us, as light beams bounced throughout the warehouse, giving the on-board sensors a workout.
In a matter of days, a “point cloud” emerged, making for stunning visuals and the data necessary to push the development further ahead.
While virtual mapping of an industrial space isn’t new, the current generation can be cumbersome, involving reflectors and other obstructive hardware installed throughout. This kind of 3D imaging can create a reliable map that AGVs (automated guided vehicles) can follow – identifying its location, navigating aisles and picking pallets.
It’s cutting-edge tech, and a work in progress for Love Park Robotics. But given what we’ve seen in the distribution industry with hardware and software interfacing more and more seamlessly over the past decade, you can bet this kind of intelligent, autonomous warehouse is on its way. Forward-looking operators like Tom Bolton, Sr., will be the beneficiary – increasing throughput, cutting expenses, and growing ever more profitable.
Keeping our eye on around-the-bend tech is a part of our corporate DNA. The hundreds of distributors around the country that use ERP-ONE and other Distribution One products know that we’ll push the envelope when it comes to innovative features and functions, which in turn, makes their operations more streamlined.
So in the coming years, if you see an unmanned forklift making the rounds all on its lonesome, don’t worry – it knows exactly where it’s headed.