The Future of the Supply Chain Is (Almost) Here
Imagine this scenario: A pallet of books arrives at a distributor’s warehouse. It is scanned, allowing the system to keep track of the location of every book as the shipment is robotically de-palletized, stored and machine-prepared for shipment to retailers. Arriving at the point of sale, cartons are scanned at the door and all contents entered instantly into inventory, with special-order customers notified automatically that their book has arrived. Customers and employees can then discover with the click of a mouse exactly where a book is located in the store, and inventory, even at the largest bookstores, takes no more than 20 minutes.
It’s not a pie-in-the-sky proposition. In fact, the technologies behind such a system—radio frequency identification (RFID), sophisticated ordering and fulfillment software, robotic palletizers, conveyors and storage solutions—are already available and used to varying degrees by a range of industries, from computer manufacturers to the U.S. military.
So, why not books? It’s coming, analysts say—but slowing the transition is a range of factors, from cost of implementation and consumer concerns to the need for industry standards that encompass a wide range of new tools and options.
Libraries Leading the Way
RFID, the technology behind the EZPass toll system, holds a great deal of promise for building in efficiencies across the supply chain, according to Jim Lichtenberg, president of consulting company Lightspeed and chair of the Book Industry Study Group’s (BISG) RFID working group since 2003.
Leading the way, says Lichtenberg, have been libraries, several hundred of which are already using RFID tags to enable automatic checkout/in and inventory management.
“It allows for better physical management of books,” he says. “A conveyor belt can knock a book into the proper bin. Customers and librarians love it—you have a pile of books, [you] walk up and put them down on [a scanner], and you are instantly checked out.”