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RESEARCH: Products that deliver themselves

By Retail Technology | Monday October 28 2013

University of Cambridge and fulfilment company launches supply chain research project that could give customers more fulfilment control

New technology being researched by the University of Cambridge, along with industrial partner James and James Fulfilment, could lead to an entirely new way of warehouse operation – allowing customers a more interactive shopping experience.

Led by Duncan MacFarlane, Professor of Industrial Information Engineering at the Cambridge University Engineering Department, and head of the Distributed Information & Automation Laboratory within the University’s Institute for Manufacturing, the research is based on a concept called 'Product Intelligence’ whereby computer models allow every product and order in the warehouse to effectively think for itself. 

“Soon orders themselves will be able to take the lead in helping warehouse and delivery staff make sure that they are processed correctly, rather than the current monolithic management systems,” commented Vaggelis Giannikas, a doctorate student working in the University of Cambridge Distributed Information & Automation Laboratory.

Adding flexibility to the last mile

Combined with cloud-based warehouse and delivery systems, the research is exploring the potential for Product Intelligence to let consumers interact with their order right up until it is delivered. 

“Currently, once an order is placed it’s generally very hard for a customer to amend it. We’ve already developed technologies which can enable consumers to edit their chosen delivery address online, even after the order is packed,” said James Hyde, operations director at James and James Fulfilment. “The team at Cambridge University are now looking at the possibility you could choose the final delivery address, while the parcel is in transit, perhaps as late as the morning of it’s delivery.”

It might sound futuristic, but the organisations highlighted that the physical infrastructure already exists, so the technology could become available sooner rather than later. Though they cautioned it would rely on heavy investment from those involved in the order and delivery process.

“While online ordering has been vastly improved in the past decade, many fulfilment centres and carriers have failed to invest at the same rate,” Hyde added. “There’s a huge potential market for the systems we’re developing.”

Adapting to customer expectations

James and James Fulfilment and the University Of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing recently hosted a conference presenting strategies to help e-commerce sellers and logistics companies understand how the new technologies can improve the customer experience [pictured].

The ‘E-commerce Strategies for the Future’ conference was held on 9 October at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge. An audience of e-commerce merchants, logistics professionals and academics learnt about the changing demands of online shoppers, strategies to cope with increasing demand and how Product Intelligence can assist with order storage, pick, pack and delivery to meet growing customer expectations.

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