Innovations both big and small have impacted the ways that packages and goods are moved around the world. When you think about how a product that you order at your computer or via your phone gets delivered to you within days or even hours, you can thank many of the innovations that were developed over the past 100+ years for the supply chain.
Many of these innovations automated or digitized existing manual processes in order to make them more efficient. As mundane as they may seem, all of these innovations helped to spur a cycle of invention that drives today’s modern supply chain.
Here are our picks of the top five small innovations that have had an oversized impact on supply chains in the last 100 years (in no particular order or ranking):
Barcodes and barcode scanners
The first barcode, a circular design that looked like a bullseye, was invented in 1948 as a way to tackle problems of the supermarket industry for inventory management and customer checkout. Eventually the barcode evolved into the common rectangular stripes you see today, as well as the first barcode scanner, which debuted in 1974. In a world before barcodes, much of the inventory within a store had to be counted manually, a very labor-intensive process that most workers detested.
Today, barcodes are practically on everything, and systems that read barcodes are found on devices such as wearable scanners, handheld scanner guns – even your smartphone can read them. They continue to help companies track inventory levels and their location throughout the supply chain.
Automatic dock doors
More than just a motion sensor, new automatic loading dock doors have sensors that will only open and close when they detect motion from a forklift truck, which helps improve the efficiency of an operation for moving goods back and forth within a warehouse. At the same time, other types of motion within a warehouse, such as humans walking by, do not trigger the door from opening. This helps replace a manual process by which a worker would need to stop their forklift, get out, open the door, and get back into the forklift. In some ways, it’s a lot like garage door openers for your home – a nice innovation that automates a manual process.
Moving goods around in a warehouse in the early days of the industrial revolution involved several pulleys and hoist systems, which had limited range. The development of a wooden pallet, as well as lift trucks that could lift and move items stacked onto a pallet, helped companies move products more quickly around a warehouse and store them.
The design of pallets led to warehouse layouts that rely on rectangular shapes – you don’t see many circular warehouses or shelving areas that are curved. With the rectangle, companies began developing different rack configurations to support different types of products to be stored. Designs such as selective pallet racks, double-deep racks, push-back racks and pallet flow racks assist companies with easier ways to store and remove pallets that are being delivered via forklift or other vehicles. In almost all of these examples, the rectangular shape of the shelving and racks themselves allow for flexibility for a warehouse to install or deploy.
Removable floor tape
In most warehouses, floors are marked to help indicate hazards, divide spaces, create aisles or give people directions on where to move. Prior to the development of removable floor tape, many of these markings would be painted, creating delays while workers waited for the paint to dry and to dissipate fumes. Vinyl tape that can be reapplied is also very helpful when a warehouse wants to reconfigure an area or create new areas for things such as where pallets can be placed or pallet jacks can be stored. Innovations in tape include scuff- and break-resistance, as well as different colors to indicate different areas in compliance with workplace regulation rules.
Small innovation, big impact
In each of these cases, the initial development of a small innovation to solve one problem led to further innovation down the road. We are now seeing similar evolution within the robotics and automation space, where the development of technologies such as mobile autonomy, robotic gripping and artificial intelligence can help automate more processes that were not possible a few years ago.