Inventory management, and specifically the inventory counts, are crucial for any foodservice operator to ensure smooth operations, minimize waste, and maximize profitability. Traditionally, inventory counts have been time-consuming and error-prone tasks that rely on manual processes. However, technological advancements have introduced innovative solutions to these counts, saving time and improving accuracy. We will explore the most popular solutions that restaurant operators are utilizing, including:
- Handheld Devices
- Fixed Cameras
- Point-of-Sale (POS) Software
- Autonomous Robots
Computer vision on a handheld, edge computing tablet revolutionizes inventory counting by employing advanced image analysis algorithms directly on the device itself. With this technology, the tablet's built-in camera captures images of the items, and the computer vision software processes the visual data in real time.
Nomad Go’s METAshelf technology takes this a step further by capturing additional data. In addition to identifying the product they capture actual item counts per row and the location within a store. It’s not just a binary in stock / out-of-stock reporting.
Speed and Accuracy
- By leveraging machine learning and deep neural networks, the tablet can recognize and classify various products with impressive accuracy. This eliminates the need for manual counting and reduces human error, significantly improving efficiency and productivity.
- Moreover, the edge computing approach ensures that the inventory counting can be performed offline, making it ideal for environments with limited connectivity, like walk-in freezers. The tablet thrives where fixed cameras struggle – it can be used anywhere including refrigerators or that dimly lit corner of the metro shelf.
- The handheld tablet's portability and ease of use further enhance its suitability for inventory management tasks, making it a highly effective solution. Ultimately, it enables brands to scale quickly with no fixed assets or installation requirements.
RFID (Radio Frequency Identification)
RFID technology involves attaching small, electronically readable tags to items in the inventory. These tags contain unique identification information that can be read by RFID scanners. Foodservice operators can employ RFID to automate inventory counts by quickly scanning multiple items simultaneously.
Speed and Accuracy:
- RFID technology allows for fast and accurate inventory counts, reducing human error and saving valuable time.
- RFID enables real-time tracking of inventory, providing up-to-date information on stock levels and helping provide clear traceability.
- Implementing an RFID system can be expensive, requiring investment in RFID tags, scanners, and software infrastructure.
- RFID systems require appropriate infrastructure, including RFID readers and network connectivity, which will need to be installed or upgraded at each location. In addition, it will require significant changes to the supply chain to effectively leverage the technology, including retrofitting manufacturing process to affix RFID tags to products.
- Employees may require training to efficiently use RFID technology and understand the new processes.
Fixed cameras provide another solution for automating inventory counts. By strategically placing cameras in storage areas, operators can utilize computer vision and image recognition technologies to identify and track inventory.
- Fixed cameras can be seamlessly integrated into existing infrastructure without disrupting daily operations. However, the cameras will need constant adjustments if the items it tracks are moved.
Real-Time Monitoring & Maintenance
- Operators can monitor inventory levels in real time, enabling proactive stock management and reducing the risk of shortages.
- Fixed cameras have a limited field of view, which may require multiple cameras to cover larger storage areas accurately. Some storage entities may be difficult to capture including the inside of refrigerators or even walk-ins.
Image Quality and Lighting
- Poor lighting conditions or obscured views can impact the accuracy of inventory recognition, requiring additional adjustments or infrastructure changes.
- A network of cameras will require appropriate infrastructure, including cameras, wiring, and network connectivity, which will need to be installed or upgraded at each location.
- The use of cameras may raise privacy concerns among employees, necessitating clear communication and policies.
POS Software Integration
Many foodservice operators already use POS software for sales transactions and other back-of-house business operations. Integrating inventory management capabilities within existing POS systems enables seamless data input of inventory levels. There are two different approaches to getting inventory data. The first would be to leverage sales data and estimate on-hand values. The other requires an employee to manually count and input the inventory directly into the POS platform.
- Estimating on-hand inventory using only sales data is difficult for foodservice operators given the nature of using recipes that require multiple items in the preparation and creation of menu items. POS data doesn’t always reflect a clean one-to-one relationship to the items being purchased. In addition, adjusting for waste and shrinkage is an ever-evolving battle that can also result in poor inventory estimates. Accuracy is also an issue when relying on manual counts due to its inconsistencies and reliance on a human to count and transcribe results.
- While it’s nice to centralize your data, this is still possible by integrating automated inventory counts generated by other solutions.
- Not all POS systems share the same functionality and features may be limited, requiring additional customization or integration with specialized inventory management systems.
Autonomous robots represent a cutting-edge solution for automating inventory counts. These robots are equipped with advanced sensors, cameras, and AI capabilities, enabling them to navigate storage areas, scan shelves, and identify products.
Efficiency and Accuracy
- Autonomous robots can swiftly scan shelves, identifying and counting items with high precision, significantly reducing human error and saving time.
- Robots can be deployed across multiple locations, enabling simultaneous inventory counts in different areas of the store.
High Initial Investment
- Implementing autonomous robot systems involves significant upfront costs for robot acquisition, infrastructure modifications, and software integration.
Maintenance and Upkeep
- Robots require regular maintenance and software updates to ensure optimal performance, adding to the operational costs.
- Robots may encounter challenges in navigating complex environments or handling irregularly shaped items, requiring human intervention in some cases.
Automating inventory counts is becoming increasingly important for foodservice operators to enhance operational efficiency and stay competitive. Each solution has its pros and cons, and operators should carefully assess their specific needs, budget, and infrastructure before selecting the most suitable solution. By embracing automation, foodservice operators can streamline inventory processes, reduce costs, and focus on delivering exceptional experiences to their customers.