Inventory Earth

“While continuous process improvement is essential, in our business real leaps in performance come from investments in new technology.”

If you ask material managers what they like most about their jobs, the once-a-year, labor-intensive process of taking physical inventory would not be on anybody’s list. It’s a task that even those who’ve adopted some form of cycle counting or real-time inventory tracking haven’t entirely been able to escape.

Managers may try to make a party out of it, giving employees brightly colored cards and stickers—and bringing in pizza for lunch—but picking through racks and shelves, counting individual items and scanning bar codes on boxes, grows old quickly. At the end of the day, assuming accurate counts and a careful reconciliation of discrepancies, unidentifiable items and other variances—an optimistic assumption in most cases—the result is an inventory snapshot that makes the accountants happy.

Now, broaden your perspective a little, and imagine how much fun it would be to take a physical inventory of the planet. With the release of Google Earth, that’s just the task that the folks at Google (Mountain View, Calif.) have begun. To complete this monumental challenge they have incorporated some nifty mapping software, and they are tapping the passions of everyone from sailors to UFO watchers.

Google Earth offers a pastiche of satellite photos for every square mile of the Earth’s surface. The company calls it a “3D interface to the planet.” By activating various layers, the software overlays the photographs with roads, political borders, parks, shopping centers, ATMs, golf courses and restaurants.

First released in June and regularly updated, the software is still a beta version. It can be downloaded for free onto PCs running Microsoft Windows. Type in a place name, city and state, or just a zip code, and you “fly” to that location. Images of many major metropolitan areas have surprising levels of detail. From an altitude of 250 feet users can easily pinpoint individual houses, cars and local landmarks. Many major cities have even been enhanced with three-dimensional representations of major buildings that “pop” out of the ground when the perspective is tilted to the side.

Other than some spectacular eye candy, one feature that makes the software so slick is the intuitive interface, which cuts the learning curve down to zero. Within five minutes my six-year-old was flying across the Pacific Ocean and zooming in and out of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano.

Trouble is, like any inventory tally, the data isn’t entirely accurate. Google reports that the satellite photos will be updated on an 18-month to 3-year cycle, which is fine for most purposes, but it means that the house in the new development that my mother moved into last month is still a patch of trees. In my neighborhood, many restaurants and shopping centers that have been in the same location for many years don’t show up when the appropriate layers are turned on.

Google programmers have apparently recognized such shortcomings. Following the lead of other “open source” projects, they’ve made it possible for anyone with a vested interest to add their own “placemarks,” and thereby share their local knowledge with anyone who might be interested in getting a true lay of the land. Early adopters have taken this functionality a step further, rushing to add overlays of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, their Caribbean travelogues and UFO sightings in the United States going all the way back to 1860.

Such quirky passions drive the uptake of any new technology, whether it’s an Internet tool or a piece of consumer electronics. Coolness often proceeds utility, and functionality proceeds content. But early fans of Google Earth are giving it the depth and value—and inventory accuracy—that will make it more attractive to future users.

Back in the material handling arena, while continuous process improvement is essential, in our business real leaps in performance come from investments in new technology. Compared to manual systems especially, from a distribution manager’s perspective, using the features of a new warehouse management system, lift-truck fleet management program or automated storage and retrieval system, can be just as exciting as using Google Earth is to a map aficionado. With the knowledge that there’s an acceptable return on investment, it’s exciting to implement and use new tools that can make your operation more productive and reduce costs.

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