How Bluetooth Beacons Are Improving Inventory & Warehouse Management
Optimizing traffic in warehousing spaces was revolutionized by the introduction of management systems based on RFID or barcodes, resulting in huge leaps forward in terms of efficiency and cost savings. But recent years have exposed the limitations of those technologies with the rocket-like growth of ecommerce. Massive increases in volume along with pressure on margins, among other factors, have made it clear that the performance ceiling of these technologies has been reached.
It’s not that RFID and barcodes don’t work—of course they do. But with the rise of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and the rapid, worldwide adoption of BLE as a communication standard across billions of devices, new possibilities are now disrupting every business vertical. Smart inventory and warehouse management have quickly become the model use case for BLE-enabled RTLS (Real Time Location Systems) using tags and beacons that are able to keep up with the modern pace of ecommerce and deliver significant business benefits.
Learn more about BLE-enabled RTLS here.
BLE has established itself as the best platform for delivering the visibility needed to achieve the automated processes that define modern warehouse efficiency.
Let’s go through some of the ways that tags and beacons powered by Bluetooth are opening doors to next-level efficiencies while remaining the most cost-effective solution on the market.
Leverage data to optimize use of space
The smart use of space is fundamental to the overall efficiency of any warehouse operation. Digital monitoring and tracking delivers easily accessible real-time visibility into available space and the location of tagged assets. Delivery to vacant shelf positions, picking and sorting and transport for delivery are all accelerated thanks to digital insights.
The continuous input of data gathered from a busy warehouse floor can be archived, bundled and analyzed to identify opportunities for even greater efficiencies that go beyond simple inventory management.
The movement of warehouse employees can also be optimized through the proper placement and organization of assets. Historical data showing patterns of inventory placement and storage can inform decisions about staff allocation. Precise measurements of dwell time, average shelf time, time spent in transit between different areas of the facility and other metrics can contribute to leaner, cost-optimized staffing.
Increased asset utilization
Walking the fine line between overcapacity and equipment shortages is fundamental to any business. In warehousing, with its large facilities, obscured spaces and remote areas, opportunities for assets of every size to disappear abound. When they can’t be found in a hurry, that’s when employees start to get the impression that they need more or new equipment when the real problem is using what they have. Smart use of existing resources keeps costs down, frees up money otherwise frozen in excess inventory and makes full use of the capacity of machinery or whatever kind of equipment applies.
Items used in warehouse work can be tracked in the same way as the inventory on the warehouse shelves. Visibility into how tools, equipment and other items needed in the everyday operation of the warehouse are used makes it easier to locate them when needed and redistribute them around the facility if necessary. You can also identify excessive asset idle time or workstations where items seem to accumulate or disappear more frequently than elsewhere.
Also, BLE tags and beacons offer cost savings through the ability to verify the actual need for additional assets rather than relying on subjective impressions or an incomplete understanding of existing resources. From simple packing materials to expensive forklifts, knowing that you’re making good use of what you already have helps to create a realistic framework for future purchasing decisions.
Taken together, better organization of people and other assets helps to cut down on the time it takes to process throughput. Even marginal improvements in this area result in massive savings when scaled up across a network of warehousing facilities.
No need to manually scan or register anything
The elimination of human error is central to many of the benefits of BLE deployments. When processes are automated through the use of wireless sensors that detect the appearance and movement of tags, there is no need for staff to actively participate. Bluetooth makes passive tracking easy. There’s no need to manually scan anything, which frees staff for other more productive activities or reduces the need for extra staff at all.
The tags used to track boxes and palettes are designed to withstand the jostling and bumps associated with moving through warehouses. With BLE, there’s no need for handlers to ensure that there’s always a line of sight between scanners and barcodes. There’s no need to use expensive hand-held readers (which always seem to go missing themselves). The BLE ecosystem includes the smartphones that most employees carry at all times, so a simple app is enough to enable staff to access inventory data at all times.
With BLE deployments, all you have to do is let the tags and sensors communicate with each other, get that data to the cloud for processing and that’s it. They don’t require your active participation to keep it running or ensure that all the moving parts stay visible. Employees can focus on warehouse work, not helping a system that’s supposed to be helping them.
Get alerts when a piece of inventory hasn’t moved
It happens. When enormous quantities of goods are being moved here and there, sometimes a certain batch or unit gets overlooked. This is obviously a problem for whoever is on the receiving end of the order, but it’s also an issue for the warehouse, with space occupied by goods that should be gone.
With BLE tags, you can get alerts when something doesn’t move from a particular space after a predefined time. This is extremely useful in a number of scenarios:
- Orders that have not been completely fulfilled
- Goods that have been mistakenly assigned to wrong zones
- Separating old stock that is difficult to visually differentiate from new stock
- Time-sensitive items with expiration dates
Being aware of possible mistakes that result in idle inventory gives everyone involved a chance to correct the situation before spoilage, customer complaints, theft or other legal issues spiral out of control.
With BLE tags constantly announcing the presence and location of the goods they’re attached to, checking for inventory that was processed before a certain date is only a click away. When stored goods reach or exceed certain limits, you can start working on resolving the issue before it becomes a potentially expensive problem.
Instant inventory status and space locator
Not only are manual inventory counts a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, but they bring other operations to a halt while the count is being done. This wasteful process can be avoided with BLE deployments, which let you do quick counts of anything that is tagged and within the range of sensors. No interruptions necessary, no downtime, no extra staff to complete the inventory.
If you have properly segmented stored goods at the time of assigning a tag to them, you can even count inventory by category of goods or any other metric.
Real-time inventory status updates also make it easy to calculate the amount of free space available at any given time—total capacity minus current inventory equals available space.
Depending on the size and nature of the initial deployment, up-front costs for a BLE infrastructure can be around a quarter of that needed for a similar RFID project. Even without knowing the details, it’s easy (and accurate) to say that BLE is far more cost-effective than other solutions. Ongoing costs are minimal, mostly in the form of occasional battery replacement (they last around two years).
But that’s only part of the cost equation. Savings are immediate and come in many forms. The efficiencies gained through optimized staffing and asset use, elimination of human error and real-time visibility into available inventory and space directly impact your bottom line.
There’s also value in setting up a future-proof Bluetooth infrastructure that will be able to accommodate updates and new functionalities as the platform grows. Having established itself as the industry standard and the foundation of a global ecosystem, the technology will provide the backbone of a number of business applications for years to come.
Learn more about the role of BLE in location tracking solutions and value being derived by early-movers in our recent white paper.