Next Generation Inventory Tracking

On a fairly slow day at Mark’s Work Wearhouse on a warm July afternoon, after taking a sip of coffee fetched by one of the store supervisors, from the nearest Jumping Bean, a sudden thought hit my mind.

As an international student in Canada, I had to work part-time jobs to cover some of my expenses. And my time as a sales associate at St. John’s Mark’s (Kelsey Drive) made me realize one hard fact — inventory tracking is tough; from struggling to find the right size of a particular make of clothing to routine cycle counts, locating the item itself aided by only a scanner was not enough.

In my mind, I laughed as I tried another sip. Here we are at the summit of modern technology, and yet we cannot solve simple problems that lurk in businesses, especially in the retail sectors — where the front-end of sales and customer interaction takes place. Was there no way out? Would we have to continue manually trying to locate products by their SKUs and shelf positions?

By all means, I believe I was reliable and dutiful at my job. But even the most expert people may have no clue where to locate an item just based on the P.O. numbers and memories of where the item “should” have been.

At that moment, I suddenly came up with an idea. Something so silly yet so probable and potential that I had to let my manager immediately know about it.

I thought, “Why don’t we try to combine the features of AR (augmented reality) with security tags and maybe a bit of IoT (internet of things)?”

People have obviously heard about VR (virtual reality), particularly due to its popularity and in light of Meta’s (formerly Facebook) own line of VR headsets and gear (e.g. Meta Quest 2). But most certainly, the average person has not heard about AR. Which perhaps explains why it is an underrated form of technology in contrast to the rising trends of A.I. (artificial intelligence).

Pokémon Go is a famous video game that debuts features of augmented reality as a central part of its functions. Similar to the way players of this game can find and track fictional creatures in real-time in the real world via their mobile device’s camera, the conclusion of utilizing a similar mechanism for inventory tracking and labelling may be the final piece we were all looking for.

That means that employees can simply launch an app, point their camera towards the collections of boxes or shelves and the system will automatically highlight the target item from afar. An illustrative scenario would look something like this :

The magic of blending internet of things with augmented reality is certainly remarkable — almost like having superpowers! Within the range of the store, employees can swiftly search for their target objects as they would appear to be ‘glowing’ through walls and any barriers, as if they had “X-ray vision”.

Stepping things up a little further, if we can embed programmable microchips inside each security tag, we can essentially store additional information about each product item, e.g. SKU, UPC, model number, color, date of manufacture, date of reception, etc. Much like a database object, certain permissions can be granted with password-protected measures so that certain authorized personnel may edit or add more information. This can be a lifesaver for people who have to check off incoming and outgoing freight.

With a few taps on the screen, they can select multiple items and visualize their exact locations through the camera. In the future, we can additionally let a machine learning algorithm take care of the counting as well.

From all that we know about computers, we know one thing — computers are better at math than humans. Thus, this is another possible aspect of improvement that can be implemented later on.

As a quick summary, in order to launch and maintain such an AR-based inventory system we would need 3 crucial components :

  • the security tag — must be a specialized programmable microchip containing information about the item, including SKU/UPC, and also capable of network connectivity (optional)
  • the app — designed for mobile devices (or specialized scanner devices), that picks up certain special signals from the ARTags and displays them on-screen respective to whatever can be seen currently on-screen from the device’s camera’s perspective
  • the device — can simply be an employee’s smartphone or a specialized scanner device tailored to the business and should have a camera and network connectivity (optional)

In a crisp nutshell, this is only a proposal for an idea that may be the norm for future businesses. At the moment, given the current state of the world economy and the declining supplies of raw materials, it may seem like a foolish investment to use AR-based inventory tracking systems.

Perhaps in the next 5 to 10 years, this same idea may prominently and positively impact countless lives across all sectors and businesses. After all, every business that deals with physical products needs a warehouse and people to maintain them.

From employees groaning at the idea of performing cycle counts in the warehouse, to sales associates struggling to locate and identify the proper merchandise on the storefront — I believe that this particular idea can be a “game changer”.

Would it not be a miracle, indeed, when both the employees’ burdens are reduced and the accuracy of stocks are nearly 100% correct and up-to-date?

This is Dewan Mukto, an aspiring leader of innovation who wants to revolutionize the entire planet for good. And I would like to thank you for reading about this prospective product idea. By all means, go ahead and begin using this in your company if you can. But if you do, an attribution is all I ask for.