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Warehouse Automation - Transformed in 6 weeks
Apple iPad Pick List, Barcodes, Camera & Inventory Systems

 12:06 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Warehouse Automation, iPad Pick List, Barcodes, Camera & Inventory Systems

Inspired by a couple guys from this 2007 topic: warehouse management [webmasterworld.com]

Last year
Hard to imagine, just a year ago, we were in a cramped, dark, messy, and animal infested warehouse. Bats (yes, found multiple bats!), snakes, and black widows. And the metal roof was crazy. Just the tiniest drizzle sounded like a hail storm inside. At least it was cheap (for California standards).

Now, after a huge round of improvements
But now, we're in an amazing new Colorado warehouse (for the last 10 months). Radiant heat throughout, 3800 square feet, motorized roll up doors, and three bathrooms. In a beautiful little town, surrounded by mountains.
  • Mobile Pick Cart with Apple iPad
  • Automatic Label Printers
  • 15 Network Video Cameras
  • Updated Packing & Shipping Process
  • Custom Bright Green Shipping Labels
  • Tighter API Integration
  • Inventory Cycle Count System
  • Randomized Inventory Locations
  • Actual Packing Photos Available Immediately on Customer's "My Account" page
  • Custom Shipping Table from a Master Carpenter
  • Wireless Network Stainless Steel Scale
  • Future Ideas: Voice Picking, Pick to Light

Been a whirlwind six weeks at my Colorado warehouse with the latest round of improvements.


Mobile Pick Cart with iPad

Old method:
Pull up an order on the computer. Memorize the order's items. Walk around, picking the products. Bring them back to the packing table. Pack and ship. Go to next order / repeat process again.

NEW method:
30 Barcoded Bins + Apple iPad

On the iPad, tap a button to "create a new pick list". An algorithm assigns each customer order to a unique barcoded & numbered bin on the pick cart. We use three different bins sizes, and the algorithm uses dimensional product info to assign bins.

Since the computer knows the exact location of each product in our warehouse, it maps a pick route from start to finish. There's no back-tracking.

The iPad now displays the first pick "step". For example, it tells the user to pick a quantity of 3 from inventory location C-5-E and put a quantity of 1 into pick bin 17, and a quantity of 2 into pick bin 22.

The user taps the "next" button, and moves onto the next step.

(Our iPad app just runs in Safari. JavaScript caches the page-to-page pick steps, and AJAX handles the printing commands).

Automatic Label Printer
Whenever the user gets to a product that needs a barcode label (mostly items that are cut from a spool), there's a Zebra GX420d wireless printer on the pick cart that instantly spits out a barcode label. Along with our logo and phone number, the label shows the product name, quantity, and of course a scannable barcode. The label printer has an auto peeler mechanism to save time.

If for some reason the user wants to print a label manually, they can simply tap a button on the iPad.

Fish-eye Network Camera
An Axis 212 network camera with fish-eye lens is mounted to a custom welded aluminum arm which positions the camera directly over the pick cart. It gives us a perfect view of the picker, the pick bins and either side of aisle / inventory bins. We archive video of the pick process. This helps us analyze each motion to figure out ways to optimize even further. It also provides an audit trail if there's a problem with an order.

Time-lapse video from the fish eye camera. Sample pick list of me filling just five orders. Trippy huh!?

Battery Power
We obviously need to power the label printer and camera, so we use a $100 battery backup / power supply that gives us about an hour of run-time. We just plug it in whenever we're not picking orders.

Packing & Shipping Process
Once the pick list is complete, the user brings the cart to the packing and shipping table.

Each bin is labeled on all sides with a barcode, and a number (1 to 30). We simply scan a bin, and the order pops up on the computer screen. We empty the contents of the bin, scan them with our wireless barcode scanner (to verify everything is correct), and then pack them. We place the package on the scale, and scan the barcode on the package which tells the computer exactly what type of package it is (for example, large priority mail box, flat rate priority envelope, padded mailed, etc.)

Some packages don't have barcodes. We automatically snap photos from three angles, and feed these photos to proprietary image recognition software. It figures out exactly which package is on the scale with almost perfect accuracy. This process is still in beta, but I've gotten it down to about six-tenths of second.

We record which package was used to ship the order for a variety of reasons. The main reason is to automate re-ordering of packaging supplies. We keep inventory levels of all packaging supplies.

Label Printing

Custom Bright Green Shipping Labels
Our standard shipping labels are 4" x 6". We re-arrange the label layout a bit so we can fit a 3/4" bright green color bleed on the top of the label with our logo and phone number pre-printed. Its an inexpensive and easy way to add a little more branding to our packages. 95% of our labels print with this, while certain international labels print on a larger format laser printer. We've got an auto-peeler, so the label pops out pre-peeled, all ready to be applied.

Automatic Pick List Labels
Small barcode labels automatically come out whenever the picker gets to a product that needs a label. Or they can be generated manually by tapping a button on the iPad.

Raw ZPL II Printer Code
To optimize print spool speed, and print quality, we send raw ZPL code to the printer. An image file (PDF, PNG, etc) could be 60k, whereas the ZPL text is just 1k. We don't have to worry about resolution.

Direct Label API Integration with USPS & UPS
We used to run a convoluted method to send XML files to Endicia/Dazzle on our shipping PC. And we used to have a messy ODBC link with UPS Worldship. Now we generate shipping labels using Endicia's Label Server API, and UPS Shipping API. This gives us a deeper level of control, and makes things faster / more reliable.

Pre-generated & Cached Labels
It can take anywhere from one second, to sometimes 15 seconds to get the label back from Endicia's Label Server API. One second isn't too bad, but every bit of time savings helps. We try to pre-generate as many labels as possible (where we are pretty sure of the weight and shipping method). We run this process in the background, and cache the labels. If a cached label exists when the order is shipped, the label is instantly fed to the printer. If we mis-calculated the weight or method, and the cached label isn't used, we'll just automatically refund/cancel it.

UPS Paperless Invoices (EDI)
We ship worldwide, and most countries already support paperless invoices, so its just one less thing we have to worry about printing and affixing to the package. We can just put a single 4x6 label on the box.

Warehouse Layout & Organization

Inventory Location Method
We've got a handful of aisles, each named with a letter (A, B, C…)
Each aisle has columns, named with a number (1, 2, 3…) Just like street numbers, one side is even, and the other side is odd.
Each column has six rows, named again with a letter (A through F)

So location C-3-D would be on aisle C, column 3, and the 4th bin up.
Location C-2-D would be across from C-3-D.

If we have excess inventory that doesn't all fit in a bin, we have back-stock locations too.

Randomized Inventory Locations
Logically, you'd group ducks with ducks, and trees with trees. It works OK to group similar products together, but once you give every part number its own unique inventory location, it doesn't really matter where they are placed. We find that, by having similar products physically separated, and placed in seemingly random places, it greatly improves picking accuracy. The pickers now don't even think about what product they are picking, they just go to a certain location and pick from that bin.

If you have yellow ducks and orange ducks right next to each other, eventually a yellow duck will find its way into the orange duck bin by mistake. Perhaps a friend comes into your warehouse and wants to look at a duck. They grab the yellow duck, look at it, and then carelessly put it back into the orange duck bin.

Now imagine, if you had yellow ducks next to green shrubberies, and on the complete opposite side of the warehouse, had orange ducks next to green trees. Your friend is much less likely to put that yellow duck back into the bin of trees. And if he did, it would be pretty obvious.

We generate a list of all our part numbers, sorted by the most commonly picked items. Using this list, we generate inventory locations for each product. We put the most popular items on the first aisle, and the least popular items furthest away on the last aisle.

Camera System
15 Network Cameras
We are using 10 x 2MP Vivotek cameras, 2 x 10MP Arecont cameras, 1 Axis 215 PTZ dome camera, and 1 Axis 212 fish-eye camera.

I'm hardly ever in the warehouse (so far only 6 weeks this year), so its really good to have piece of mind while I'm away. I can check in to make sure things are staying clean and organized. We can use the recorded video as an audit trail if there's a problem with an order to pinpoint exactly what went wrong. And hopefully prevent it in the future.

Photos Available to Customer (of their actual order)
This one's really cool! We've got five cameras pointed at our shipping table from various angles. Our system automatically snaps a handful of photos while the customer's order is being packed. We make these instantly available to the customer, so they can see how their exact order was packed (on the My Account page).

Here's what we show on the My Account page along with the three photos:

Why Photos?
At the precise moment your order is weighed, photos are automatically snapped by three fixed-position cameras. These photos are labeled with your order ID and instantly fed into our proprietary software. We then measure the package in 3-D and analyze color composition in order to categorize the delivery medium. Once the order's information is processed, a shipping label is automatically printed and placed on your package.

In addition to the photos, we record shipping sequence videos for every order. If any problems should arise, this documentation becomes part of the audit trail used in researching your order. And we regularly review video footage of our shipping center, to continually look for ways to improve our operations.

We provide these photos to you, because we think that such transparency makes for good customer service, and hey--we think the technology is somewhat cool.

Shipping Table
We've made a custom ship table that conveniently holds the most popular packaging supplies. The ship table also houses:
  • Cheap PC
  • 24" LCD Screen
  • 12" x 12" Stainless Steel Doran Scale, with wifi adapter (Model: 7000XL)
  • 2 x Direct Thermal Label Printers (Model: Zebra GX420d)
  • 2 x Wireless Laser Printers
  • 1 x Symbol Barcode Scanner (Model: LS9208)
  • 1 x Wireless Honeywell 2D Barcode Scanner (Model: 4820SR)
  • Handful of routers and power backups

Network Scale
Really complicated to set up. Their tech support didn't even know what Linux was… So I was pretty much on my own. Using a DIGI Connect RS232 Serial to Wifi adapter, I gave the adapter/scale its own IP address. Played with a bunch of configuration settings, and finally figured out a way to communicate with the scale from a custom perl script.

The scale averages weights 12 times a second, and sends current weight to my perl script 3 times a second. The perl script maintains a constant connection with the scale, and re-connects automatically if needed.

I save the last stable weight reading to a file, which can then be used from my backend systems. I've made some triggers available too, for example, I can have the perl script "ping" a certain URL if the weight changes (and motion stops). This will be useful for further automating the auto image recognition system. The user could place a package on the scale. As soon as the scale has a stable weight, the perl script would ping a URL to begin the image snaps / recognition process. And about 1 second later, an appropriate shipping label would automatically print.

Inventory Cycle Count System
Rather than be overwhelmed with a massive inventory count at year end, we try to count a few items per day, each day of the year. This way we can count each product at least twice a year, and it doesn't take more than 15 or 20 minutes a day. A system keeps track of who counted what, and when. It then queues up the most urgent part numbers that need to be counted next.

Barcode System
Linear vs. 2D
Its a brand new implementation, and so far working really well. Before, we didn't have barcodes on anything, and stupid mistakes were common. For example, we'd accidentally send the customer a blue duck instead of a red duck.

I've experimented with a handful of symbologies and originally liked the 2D datamatrix style because it didn't take up too much space on a label. But it seems the linear Code 128 is overall the best choice. Readability with our scanners is quick. We aren't encoding much data, and can fit the barcode into about 1/4" x 1 1/2"

Data Format & Barcode Tracking
We have full control over the design process, manufacture 95-something percent of our products, and are only one selling them. We don't have to worry about UPC codes. We've made up our own simple data format:

x = quantity in pack
y = unique part number (auto increment database field, so far from 1 to 1500 or so)
z = unique purchase order id

An example could be: 10-556-345
Which would mean there's 10 red duck beaks in the package and they are from purchase order 345.

We use the purchase order to track supplier defects. For example, we can see if defects are coming from a certain purchase order / manufacturing batch.

I've thought about using a unique serial number for each label, where no two barcode labels would be the same. This would allow us to track a few more things, but I don't think its really necessary now. From what I understand, Zappos does this, and they call it a "license plate".

Scanning User Interface
The entire backend system runs through a browser (rather than a desktop app). Of course, a barcode scanner just plugs in to a USB port and simulates a keyboard. If you scan a barcode, the data is "typed" into the computer.

To handle barcode scanning in our web interface, I programmed our scanners to send an open bracket "[" + the actual barcode data + a closing bracket "]".

There's a couple hidden form fields and a javascript event watcher that looks for an open bracket keystroke, and then starts writing the barcode data to another hidden field. Once it sees a close bracket, it knows it just got a barcode, and then handles it.

The system automatically displays a confirmation indicator next to each line item on the order as it is scanned. If partial quantity is scanned, it shows up orange. If the exact amount is scanned, it shows up green, and if too much is scanned, it shows up red.

It obviously won't let the user proceed if there's an error. If a completely wrong product is scanned, we do an AJAX call with the part number scanned, and get the name back.


There's more to do, but I'll save it for next year.
For example...

Voice Picking
I whipped up a super beta version of this just to test the concept. It works fine.
Basically, the picker can wear a headset, and receive voice directed commands.
Something like: "Go to location E-40-D and pick 2 quantity. Put them in bin 12."
Then with voice recognition, they can say, "OK", and it'd move on to the next step. Or they could say "repeat"…

Pick to Light / Put to Light
Each inventory bin will have an LED light that will be individually controllable from our web server. When the picker is on a certain step, the bin will light up.

And the bin on the pick cart that they are supposed to put the product into will light up.

And when they are back at the shipping table, we will use a dimensioning algorithm to suggest a box/envelope size to be used for the order. A light next to those boxes/envelopes will turn on, thus visually directing them to the appropriate package.

With some training and optimization, the algorithm will be able to make better decisions than the shippers. So we won't waste oversized boxes.

Infrared Beam Trip Sensors
Think of the sensors on the bottom of your garage door. One is an infrared emitter, the other is an infrared receiver. Same thing your TV remote uses.

In the same device that holds the LED to light up the bin, there will be infrared emitters/receivers.

As soon as someone sticks their hand into a bin, the infrared beam will be broken. We'll be able to tie this in with the pick system. If for example, they accidentally grabbed something from the wrong bin, or put something into the wrong bin, a buzzer would go off, and the bin could flash. When they grab from the correct bin, and place into the correct bin, the lights would turn off, and the next step would appear.


I was halfway across the world, in Kyoto, Japan for a month or so. I got a nasty email from my main shipping guy at 2 am. He "went off the deep end" and was about to quit half-way through a busy Monday. I begged him to stay on and ship orders at least until I could find and train a replacement.

I hadn't been back to the US in eight months, and things were starting to slip. Someone who is angry and quitting isn't the best person to train a new employee. Plus, I hadn't even met this person yet! I was on a plane the next day.

On the way back from Japan, I stopped in Beverly Hills, and just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, a bad lightning storm took out most of our electrical equipment. We had battery backups / surges, but pretty much everything was fried: computers, printers, routers.

There were too many orders piled up and a brand new person running around with no clue what to do. A bit of a mess! We're known for shipping orders within hours. Customers were upset when it took two to three days.

Anyways, I hit the ground running, and have been working crazy hours, 6 to 7 days a week. Rewarding to see all this progress. And now able to hang out in far-away places again without worrying :)

Would love to hear your comments: if you have any ideas for further optimization, or other warehouse tips.



 12:12 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Smashing post! Thank you for the excellent insight on a real world solution!


 12:56 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

That is absolutely cool. Brings back memories of when I had an online bookstore, picking stock from shelves.

I love this part:
Photos Available to Customer (of their actual order)
This one's really cool! We've got five cameras pointed at our shipping table from various angles. Our system automatically snaps a handful of photos while the customer's order is being packed. We make these instantly available to the customer, so they can see how their exact order was packed (on the My Account page).

That is just over the top. I'd LOVE to see pics of my actual order as it's being packed. That is some over the top customer service.


 1:03 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

WOW! This is impressive!

I was the one who started your referenced post, i've come quite a ways since then too.

When I posted that, we were running out of a small basement. We moved from there into a 5k square foot warehouse fall of 08.

I created and implemented my own warehouse management system. First was done in java, and a year ago was redone in C# .NET

Quick overview.

1. Orders printed in batches of 40.
2. Picker walks warehouse and picks products for order (products are large and bulky so we can only do 1 order at a time).
3. Picker returns products to packing station and heads out for next order.
4. Packer scans upc on invoice.
5. Ordered items display on LCD.
6. Packer scans each picked item as he boxes them.
7. If scanned item matches something on the screen, the line item turns green (option for sound turned on with Homer saying Woo Hoo) so they dont need to physically watch the screen.
8. If scanned item does not match something on screen the rogue item is displayed in red on the bottom. (option for sound turned on with Homer saying DOH)
9. Once all items are scanned and analysis of go or no go is made. If the order was picked properly, a button for Complete Order is displayed. Scanning a bar code on packing table clicks button and at that time Capture the funds via payment gateway.
10. Packer now scans invoice on World Ship, prints label.
11. World Ships writes tracking info out to a table in a local db.
12. Once every 15 minutes, a process runs to read that tracking table and writes the tracking info out to customers account and sends updated notification.

This simple yet effective process has truly made us the leader in our industry for efficiency and accuracy.

The funny thing was our packers didnt trust the system. They would call me in and say "the system doesnt work, it says I didnt pull the right thing but I know I did". I politely point out they pulled the 5 lb light blue but the customer ordered the 6lb lighter blue lol.

All in all our system works great. I would LOVE to implement the camera aspect though. We occasionally get a customer complain that we sent them the wrong thing, we know we didnt but its hard to prove.

Lastly, we started in a basement, moved into a 5k warehouse, and we just negotiated a deal for a newer warehouse totaling 15k square feet!


 1:31 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Sounds like you should just employ robots to work for you - sounds like my idea of 'super efficient hell'


 1:48 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Really like the post. It was a good read. Having come from a warehouse shipping business, I understand about getting the red ducks in with the green ones.
One thing we used to do to make sure this didn't happen is when items got to the "sorting table", while they were being put into the shipping box, we would scan the bar code on the item to make sure it matched what was on the pick ticket.

You've seemingly done a thorough job with your pick system. ;)

The best picking system that I've ever seen, which is truly automated, is UPS's system they use to ship out their replacement delivery vehicle parts. That's truly awesome.


 2:08 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Phil, you're an inspiration in this area. Thank you for posting this and pushing the envelope for us all. We're all getting better together!


 2:23 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Wow! What a post philbish! :)

Interesting stuff and really nice to read about the transition from the "basement" to the warehouse. Been there myself, but still in the basement unfortunately.

Have you considered offering white label or drop shipping for other companies? With that setup you could easily handle thousands of orders?


 2:52 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Sounds absolutely brilliant (and very like our system :o)

I thought of doing the camera thing but never got round to it.

Have you read Inventory Accuracy by David J. Piasecki?


 2:54 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Really impressive. Thanks

brotherhood of LAN

 5:08 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Amazing. hats off to the creators.


 5:49 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Come and do mine! (please!)


 5:51 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

While the technology sounds great, the actual work "take item from the shelf with the indicator light on it, and place it on the tray with the indicator light on it" requires nothing more than untrained monkeys following flashing lights.

Beware that your business may end up with a workforce unable to think for itself at any level, and that is a huge danger when anything goes wrong. There's no one left with any clue what to do when the lights stop flashing.

This also sounds like the job from hell, and I would be concerned that such a job would ultimately lead to depression and mental illness in the workforce.


 6:04 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

While the technology sounds great, the actual work "take item from the shelf with the indicator light on it, and place it on the tray with the indicator light on it" requires nothing more than untrained monkeys following flashing lights.

Beware that your business may end up with a workforce unable to think for itself at any level, and that is a huge danger when anything goes wrong. There's no one left with any clue what to do when the lights stop flashing.

This also sounds like the job from hell, and I would be concerned that such a job would ultimately lead to depression and mental illness in the workforce.

Thats what the warehouse supervisor is for, they make the decisions.


 6:31 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Don't know if I am most impressed by the Post, the Warehouse or the Video.

This thread will make the rounds in our office.

(i have warehouse envy)


 6:34 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Oh ya.... love your shipping charges ;-)


 6:49 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

Awesome post! This takes me back to when I first heard the concept of e-commerce- exactly the type of automation I envisioned as the full potential of the concept.
...requires nothing more than untrained monkeys following flashing lights.

That's the only thing missing from the original description of e-commerce I heard- inventory was picked from the bins and taken to the mailing table by a robotic cart.


 8:43 pm on Sep 23, 2010 (gmt 0)

>> warehouse envy

Hey now, this is a family forum.. ;)


 3:47 am on Sep 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Fantastic post. I spent a year as a logistics officer in the air force in 1985 and remember going to a showcase Ford warehouse where the picklist was printed by a mainframe and the forklift driver had a barcode reader hooked up to a walkie talkie that could talk back to the mainframe, so that stock levels were kept updated. That was jaw-dropping then. Your detailed post shows how you have taken the process to a whole new level.

When's the YouTube video coming? :)


 3:59 am on Sep 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Really interesting story, thanks for sharing with us!

I am doing a lot of logistics and robotics automation and you have reached a very efficient environment with as it seems just a moderate investment. Congratulations with that.

I understand g1smd's comment about monkeys. One of my customers 20 years ago declared that he only wanted monkeys which where able to push a green button. Actually after a lot of automation the contrary happened. Mechanical and automated systems were taking over the boring and repeating work while the people were still needed for the jobs where a flexible brain was useful. So instead of creating monkeys, they created a flexible work force which was able to supplement the automated systems which were doing the bulk of the repeating work.

You can do the same type of improvement here. As your warehouse will be getting larger, much more time will be spent on walking/transport between one location and the other, and humans will become increasingly less efficient in your setup if the warehouse size increases. The next step I would therefore recommend is not adding the flashing light type of thing, but adding mechanized transport from your storage locations to the packing location. In that way the picker can dedicate his full time with picking products, while the transport task is taken over by something as simple as a conveyor belt. Not a huge investment in terms of money or automation, but depending on the warehouse size it can give a significant improvement in the picker's duty cycle.

Another optimization point which won't cost you any money, just time to analyze your order data, is to cluster the products in such a way that items which are ordered often together are in the same warehouse region. Many e-commerce websites offer the "other customers also bought" lists which give an indication of which items are often ordered together. Average walking distance per order can significantly decrease if you optimize your product locations based on that data.


 5:11 am on Sep 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

You've got a good point g1smd. There's ways to make an automated workplace more stimulating though. Zappos is a great example (from reading Tony Hsieh's, Delivering Happiness).

Interesting thing about monkeys - we tried a bit of humor in the shipped confirmation email, "our warehouse monkeys have shipped your order". Eventually a customer from the south got very upset, saying it was a racial slur (porch monkey's I guess). So now we use, "our trained dolphins". I actually found a plush dolphin hat online, but it was only available in kid's sizes, otherwise there's a good chance our shippers may be wearing dolphin hats while shipping (just to get an awesome photo for each order).

Its going to be a while before we hit size / walking distance constraints. But great suggestions lammert, about the clustering, and conveyors. Robots that bring the shelves to the packing table seem to be the answer to this. Kiva won't really talk to you for less than a million-something dollars though. It wouldn't be too difficult or expensive to build my own Kiva-like system, for perhaps only $5k to $10k per robot. And then could still utilize the pick-to-light / put-to-light system with movable shelves.


 7:33 pm on Sep 24, 2010 (gmt 0)

Amazing amount of work for just 6 weeks. I wonder about the life span of Ipads. We use Symbol handhelds mainly for their durability.

You might want to add parcel rate shopping to your list for next year.


 1:00 am on Sep 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

Beware that your business may end up with a workforce unable to think for itself at any level, and that is a huge danger when anything goes wrong. There's no one left with any clue what to do when the lights stop flashing.

Sometimes you need someone to just pick something up and bring from place a to b. Not much thinking involved


 8:12 pm on Sep 25, 2010 (gmt 0)

@ philbish
Very impressive automation you have done. :)

After reading your summaries, I couldn't find the main software you use for this warehouse management. Is it common software or you custom made them?


 4:20 pm on Sep 26, 2010 (gmt 0)

Thanks CenSin, Everything is custom made


 4:04 pm on Sep 29, 2010 (gmt 0)

Preliminary numbers are in, and looking quite good!

Barcode system implemented mid-August. Numbers refer to the percent of orders.

Shipping Error - Wrong Product Sent
June: 2.58%
July: 3.22%
August: 0.95%
September: 0.4%

Product Never Received (now mostly USPS error - just gets lost)
June: 1.38%
July: 4.63%
August: 2.04%
September: 0.3% (all 'never received' September orders were lost by USPS)

Product Broken in Shipping (not affected by barcode system)
June: 0.6%
July: 1.2%
August: 0.4%
September: 0.5%

Detail of September "Wrong Product Sent" errors:
1) Customer clearly ordered Warm White color, but they insist they ordered Cool White. Not our error. But we're honoring replacement anyways.

2) Customer ordered 2 Foot, but we sent 1 Foot. The package was labeled incorrectly by factory. Not really our error.

3) A small part was missing from one of the products. The product description doesn't necessarily say the product includes this part. But another product on the customer's order did have the part, and so they assumed they should be included with every product. It would be quite simple though for the customer to use the product without this part. I guess some people are scared of this for whatever reason. We ended up just sending another tiny part.

4) Customer placed a phone order for 3 Orange, but employee accidentally put the order in for Green. Shipping department accurately shipped Green. But we ended up having to replace for the Orange that customer originally wanted. This doesn't happen too often, but one option to eliminate this would be forcing the customer to order online (and only then accepting say the credit card details over the phone). But probably not worth the hassle - errors like this are rare.


 6:43 pm on Oct 14, 2010 (gmt 0)

Hi Philbish,

Great post. I really love to see how other people think around warehouse problems.

I am curious if you can delve into more details regarding how you measure the parcel using your fixed position cameras ?

Any tips or further info would be great. This is something i would love to implement

Cheers Alex


 10:51 pm on Oct 14, 2010 (gmt 0)

Product Never Received (now mostly USPS error - just gets lost)
June: 1.38%
July: 4.63%
August: 2.04%
September: 0.3% (all 'never received' September orders were lost by USPS)

All that tech is great, but you need to focus on what's happening to the stuff you ship (or think you're shipping. Perhaps 0.1% of our incoming and outgoing shipments vaporize, regardless of how they're shipped, UPS or mail. I will admit that our stuff is pretty boring and not easily resold by thieves.

Do you export? I'd work on making your packages look less attractive to thieves. Speak with the Postal Inspectors office. Ask the USPS people what the national average is for lost mailed packages.

Are your customers just lying about not getting their orders? I'm sort of a fan of the USPS and hate to see them unfairly ripped.


 1:11 am on Mar 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

Made a cool update to the system that's been working fantastic. Useful in so many ways.

With each successful barcode scan of a product, we automatically snap photos of the shipping table, and close-up of the scanning area.

Example images: [oi54.tinypic.com...]

We tie these into the order, so on any order page, we can quickly see exactly what was scanned.

We now have a quick visual audit of how the product looked. How it was labeled, packed, etc.

There's six IP cameras covering the shipping table, all at different angles, and zooms.

Technical process:
Shipping is all done through a custom web app. Barcodes are handled by Javascript / ajax. Barcode scanner adds a prefix and suffix "[" and "]". Javascript listens for these characters and then starts writing barcode data to a hidden field. Once it has the barcode, it triggers an ajax call to a php script that uses CURL to download a JPG still from the camera's IP address. Saves it to a temp folder, and then starts uploading it to cloud file hosting. Saves a record in a temp barcode database table. Once the order is shipped, data is transferred from the temp table to the real table. And now all the photos are instantly visible to me and customer service staff.


 1:22 am on Mar 14, 2011 (gmt 0)

So you are photographing everything as it gets scanned and packed? Do you put a photo inside the package?

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