Half a croissant, on a plate, with a sign in front of it saying '50c'
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What are you, nuts?

Automate bulk item checkout at the hardware store
  (+12, -1)(+12, -1)
(+12, -1)
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A couple of days ago I bought:
#10, 1-1/2" long screws, qty 10: $.06 ea
#10 nuts, qty 10: $.03 ea.
#10 fiberlock nuts, qty 5: $.05 ea.
5/16" rod couplers, 1" long, qty 2: $.50 ea.
5/16" nuts, qty 10: $.09 ea.
1/2" bolt, 1.5" long, qty 1: $1.00 ea.
1/2" nut, qty 1: $.11 ea.

Good hardware store: priceless

I dutifully jotted the quantity and price of each item on the outside of a small brown paper bag, as though I'd been through this routine before. I later read off each line to the hardware store cashier who had no idea at all what I really had in that little brown paper bag. She trustingly keyed in each price and quantity, no SKU or other identifier was given to the computer. "Miscellaneous Hardware", read the line items on the receipt.

The system works but has some shortcomings, primarily:
1) Inconvenience to the customer, having to mark down all of the items
2) Inconvenience to the other customers when a customer doesn't write them down and the clerk must manually identify each item and look up the price of each.
3) Difficult for the store to be sure that a customer isn't lying about what they put in the bag.
4) Manual inventory counting is the only way to estimate current quantity on hand and determine purchasing requirements for any of the items sold in this manner.

I propose the following solution:
At the checkout counter would be a raised lip holding tray in to which such small quantity, miscellaneous hardware purchases would be dumped when checking out. A machine vision system would analyze and identify all of the items in the tray then look up the SKU and weight of each item.

The holding tray would actually be the platter of a scale. The system would calculate the weight as predicted by the machine vision and compare it to the scale reading. If the weights are close enough, the system would upload the SKU and quantity to the cash register system which would determine the price as with any item that had been barcode scanned or entered by SKU (UPC, whatever) manually. This process would take place while the cashier is proceeding to check out any other barcoded or tagged items (3 feet of 5/16-18 allthread in this case).

If an item in the tray isn't recognized, an alert sounds and a laser pointer dot indicates to the cashier which item isn't recognized. (Or the item is highlighted on a video display).

If the machine vision system can't confidently identify an item because it's obscured by other items, the tray vibrates to shake down the stacked items and the system tries again.

If the calculated and actual weights don't match, the first attempt to resolve the discrepancy would be to vibrate the tray to rearrange the items and attempt to count again using the machine vision system.

A special "pouring corner" (like on those trays that the pharmacists use) would permit easy transfer of the product back in to a bag.

half, Sep 28 2005

Nut Vending Machine Thanks for the inspiration, [half]. [Worldgineer, Sep 28 2005]

[link]






       Look At My Nuts (<sigh> was that a set-up?)
Worldgineer, Sep 28 2005
  

       Given that many stores are moving toward customer-only checkouts, I don't see what's wrong with the method you encountered at the store. People are really pretty honest, after all.
DrCurry, Sep 28 2005
  

       It's slow, inconvenient, non-parallel tasking and it makes for poor inventory control.   

       Self-checkout systems are quite dependent upon UPC codes or at least PLU's. I haven't yet seen one that will accept "miscellaneous hardware" as a valid product. Additionally, many of those systems also validate the order by weight. Without knowing exactly what was purchased, that wouldn't work.   

       I find it interesting that as I wrote the idea, I was thinking the exact opposite of your opinion. Namely that this idea would mesh perfectly with and be a nice enhancement to the automated checkout systems.   

       Of course, if you're of a mind to chat with the cute young cashier at the hardware store, this idea might not seem so good. ;-)   

       [World], 'fraid I'll have to pass. Thanks.
half, Sep 28 2005
  

       (Somebody help me with that lame title?)   

       A Better Way To Get 'Screwed'
sleeka, Sep 28 2005
  

       A hex upon this thread...
normzone, Sep 28 2005
  

       Good thought. Not sure the precision dispenser is any more realistic than my machine vision idea, but your approach does raise the possibility of some sort of system to allow scanning the bin's barcode to indicate what was purchased and ultimately generating a serial numbered ticket to scan at checkout. Lots of possibilities.   

       (btw - the prototype I'm building with the purchase mentioned above is coming along nicely. Made big progress tonight: I found the next hurdle. More later...if I get it working.)
half, Sep 28 2005
  

       [Title change inspired by/in response to Worldgineer's annotation]
half, Sep 28 2005
  

       10 10-32x1-1/2" screws @ $.06 ea. 10 10-32 nuts @ $.03 ea. 5 10-32 fiberlock nuts @ $.05 ea. 2 5/16-18 1" rod couplers @ $.50 ea. 10 5/16-18 nuts 1 1/2" x 1-1/2" bolt 1 1/2" nut Is it an over unity device?   

       and we have what [pa've] said
zeno, Sep 28 2005
  

       I didn't really get to the nuts and bolts of your idea because it was too much with the numbers and the sizes and the handyman pricing, but I did notice on your profile page it says, "the fight gets tougher and the goal no closer." Are you referring to a home improvement project when you say that?   

       Really, what is going on?
k_sra, Sep 28 2005
  

       [zeno], I guess I didn't write that part very well.   

       You have a hardware store that sells little miscellaneous nuts and bolts by the pound? How does that work, do they weigh each item separately? I'm having a hard time understanding how that works. the cost of production for a small nut and a larger nut is probably very close to the same. Selling the smaller of the two for say, 1/3 the price doesn't seem right to me. Maybe more of the cost is in transportation than in production in which case it makes sense.   

       Nails, drywall screws and similar low price items are commonly sold by the pound at hardware stores around here, but those are things that people don't often have a need for just one or two of.   

       [UnaBubba], some nuts and bolts are big enough to hold a barcode. But, a #10 nut is only 3/8 of an inch across and about 1/8" thick, with an 1/8" hole in the middle. I haven't seen that except in the case of a separately applied label. There are common, cheap fasteners that are considerably smaller.   

       Do you happen to have a link to those nuts and bolts so labeled? I need to look in to that. If it can be done that cost effectively, I might be able to make use of the technology at work.   

       Hiya, [k]. Slummin? ;-)   

       All those numbers just translate to a bunch of miscellaneous small pieces. Sorry, I just used the sort of descriptions that I usually see. I see now that it could be nearly unreadable if the reader is not me. I fix...   

       Yes, exactly.
half, Sep 28 2005
  

       Sell everything in multiples of bulk ... one bulk, two bulk, etc. That would shorten the lines to check out, but I'm not complaining.   

       Two solutions I don't like: (1) string and tag on every item. (2) clear plastic cup with a paper lid for each item.   

       One solution I don't like but is an improvement over the above: (1) bubble wrap, in perforated sheets or in strips on a spool.
reensure, Sep 28 2005
  

       // Hiya, [k]. Slummin? ;-)//   

       Ah, you know me so well... : )
k_sra, Sep 28 2005
  

       No lasers?! Oh, wait, there is a laser. + This would be fun to watch.
Shz, Sep 28 2005
  

       I'm not multiple nuts, just one.
goober, Sep 28 2005
  

       When I worked in a hardware store, my boss sold all nuts and bolts by the pound...he had calculated the average price of all his hardware and charged accordingly...we never got a single complaint from any customer...they enjoyed the convenience of it all and Mr. Kilgore was successfully profitable for over 45 years. A customer needing only a single bolt or screw...small in size, was never charged...Mr. Kilgore just considered it a nice thing to do for his customers.
Blisterbob, Sep 28 2005
  

       Mr. Kilgore was an Al Qaeda operative.
Texticle, Sep 28 2005
  

       Actually, that's not a bad idea, but it seems like it would still need some subgroupings to be cost effective. If not, I guess I'll pick up my stainless fasteners at Kilgore's. :-)
half, Sep 28 2005
  

       Speaking of stainless, you'll need more than shape recognition here. Make sure it's very well lit, as you'll need color and texture recognition as well. Certainly not impossible, just a bit more tricky.   

       I wonder if conductivity could be used? Place small parts in a hopper, and one by one wires are connected to each side, checking the resistance across the part. Nah - surface effects would likely play too large of a role.
Worldgineer, Sep 28 2005
  

       Yeah, there's more than one problem with it. I hadn't really thought of the stainless issue until I wrote that annotation. Just goes to show that it's poorly thought out.   

       You might be able to visually discern brass hardware from steel. Nylon or even aluminum would at least cause a weight discrepancy if steel is assumed. Stainless...well, that's a bit of a stain on the concept.   

       Yeah, depending on the texture, it can sometimes be tough to tell a stainless fastener just by looking at it. It's a pretty subtle difference in sheen and color.
half, Sep 28 2005
  

       come on you two! these silly things are purchaseable and come pre-wrapped in bits of plastic.come on
po, Sep 28 2005
  

       Minus the fancy error-prone vision system, this is exactly how many factories inventory small parts. There are special scales with two trays. Put 10 of whatever the part is in the smaller tray, put the rest in the larger tray, and it gives you a count.   

       It could easily be adapted to remove the small tray (the parts average weights could be on file), and to output a price instead of a count.
krelnik, Sep 28 2005
  

       +1 half a world = great stuff!
po, Sep 28 2005
  

       I've seen that done in the real world, in fact, I'm pretty certain it was the satndard approach before everything came shrink-wrapped.
DrCurry, Sep 28 2005
  

       I know how many there are, I count them as I pick them out of the bins. It's storing and conveying that information to the cash register system that I find lacking. By the time I get them to the register, they are quite literally a mixed bag.   

       Weighing before they're mixed would still require me to inform the machine what I'm weighing and then somehow keep track of those SKU/qty pairs. I don't know if that would be any more convenient than writing the stuff down, though I don't write down the SKU in my favorite store, just the qty/cost. In some stores, there are special bags with rows of blocks that you're supposed to fill out with the SKU or UPC.   

       I was trying to replace the front-end (customer) loading and the back-end (cashier) loading with an automated process. I guess it's really an exercise in design and creative problem solving (well, attempted anyway) that seeks to improve service times at the register, facilitate automated sales tracking and ordering, and make shopping easier for the customer.   

       When I design software or any other kind of system that involves human interaction, I try to make it work within the most convenient and natural behavior tendencies as possible. (I often refer to it as "making it easier to do right than to do wrong".)   

       In this case, it's easy, convenient and natural to simply drop the miscellaneous items in one bag and head to the cashier, hence my support of that methodology. (It's also natural to want to buy just the quantity you need.) Sorting, identifying and counting by the cashier is a rather unnatural, tedious, time-consuming and error prone process, hence the proposal to let a machine do the counting while the cashier works on other tasks such as scanning barcoded items. It is generally advantageous for a store to know exactly what it's selling, hence my reluctance to go with the charging of the mixed bag as per-pound, non-distinguished items. Barcoding of each little item can be done, I've worked with some equipment that scans some teeny little 2D barcodes. Scanning each one individually costs a lot of time AKA money. Selling only in pre-packaged lots is certainly valid but doesn't fulfill the exact need of the customer. (Of course, if I need more than a few of one type of fastener, I often buy a box of 100 or 200 or however they're packaged.)   

       All of the approaches suggested by others here are certainly effective, but none address all of the areas I was attempting to address. On the other hand, mine doesn't work in all situations and would likely be very expensive to purchase and maintain.   

       I'm enjoying the dialog and the multitude of approaches to the problem. When I'm halfbaking, that stuff's more important than the actual solution.
half, Sep 28 2005
  

       Technology is certainly a good solution for doing small repetative tasks quickly. Perhaps a computer interface might help - select the type and quantity you need, and an invoice is printed out. Actually selecting your products could still be done the old fashioned way, though your invoice could have a bin # to help the customer (I know looking for the hardware takes most of my time in the isle). You could also use an automated system like my nut vending machine or something resembling a cluster of gumball machines. As long as your bag weighs what the inventory system says it should weigh, there's no work involved for the cashier.   

       //Little ones... cheaper to buy them in a blister pack of 15 or 20.// Not around here. I've noticed Home Depot type stores charge nearly double for little sealed plastic bags of hardware compared to the bins.
Worldgineer, Sep 28 2005
  

       I've observed the same pricing scheme, [World].   

       I kept thinking of the gumball vending machines when considering your idea.   

       While scrounging around a place here called "Apache Reclamation" the other day, (a must-visit if you find yourself bored in Phoenix) I saw a multi-celled candy vending machine that would just fit the bill. I think it was two-sided with six gumball vending machines on each side, all in one cabinet.   

       Hmm...it might be fun to have something like that set up outside a hardware store, for the novelty if nothing else. "How many quarter-twenty nuts do I get for a quarter?"
half, Sep 28 2005
  

       [RFID] each one.
neilp, Sep 29 2005
  

       Nutster.
bristolz, Sep 29 2005
  

       Remember back in the 1980's when there were those controversies about the U.S. government spending $600 for a toilet seat? I remember mentioning this to my dad, who ran a NiCd battery factory that did some government contracts. He pointed out that the replacement parts for the batteries (mostly little washers, nuts and metal bars that connect the cells together), are far more expensive in the "government" version. Why?   

       When they shipped these parts to regular non-military customers, they'd just put a bunch of them in a box. No problem. But the Department of Defense insisted that every single one of these tiny little parts come in its own individual zip-lock bag, with a printed label with a bar code on it.   

       The labor involved in printing out these bar codes, applying them to the bags, and bagging the parts, sent the cost of these little parts skyrocketing.
krelnik, Sep 29 2005
  

       Amazingly enough all the nuts and bolts could be printed from the factory with a unique RFID chip that could be scanned for a very small cost. Regular RFID chips are down to 2 cents apiece. Printed circuits would cost far less.   

       I like the idea of buying by weight. (Like the Saudi's do for gold - doesn't matter what it's made into it's all sold by weight) A simple meter could determine what material it is made from and charge you for the weight of that material. If some factory wanted more money than the standard weight to price market value then they could put it in a plastic baggie.
Willie333, Sep 29 2005
  

       When my grandfather was foreman of the big equipment maintenance and repair operations of a copper mine in Peru, they used to punch holes in 1/2 Sole coins because it was cheaper than buying soft metal (i.e. brass) washers.
half, Sep 29 2005
  

       This idea is dead. So dead it's got bolts in its neck.   

       That was weak, I know. I apoligize. +
Eugene, Sep 29 2005
  

       Wow what a long thread, haven't read it all but here is how it works at the store where I buy nuts and bolts and screws and what not.   

       They have a big wall with many little drawers. you take what you want from one of them and put it on the scale. you enter the number that is on the front of the drawer of what you choose. press enter and out comes the price tag.
zeno, Sep 30 2005
  

       Vision systems aren't yet sophisticated enough to distinguish different types of hardware, in different orientations. I say yet; they're pretty good, and getting better all the time. With a carefully designed tray (so everything lay in one direction, for example), it might be doable. +
moomintroll, Sep 30 2005
  

       A nut looks very different on its edge.
moomintroll, Sep 30 2005
  

       "May contain traces of nuts"
Ehrm, Sep 30 2005
  

       At the grocery store in the self check-out line you type in the code of whatever sort of bulk item you have from the label you twisted onto the plastic bag yourself when you selected the stuff. If there's no label then you type in the code from the picture up above the screen. And then there's bakery stuff, same story, except all you have to do is mark the number of items in whatever category that's already printed on the cutesy little paper bags. The very fancy machine Pa've describes sounds way too expensive for the average hardware store. Maybe grocery store technology would work okay for those smaller operations. My hardware store has paper bags with some things marked on them already and you mark a checkbox. I'd be kinda scared of anything fancier than a paint mixer or a key cutter in a hardware store. I'd feel like I was helping them pay for those fancy gadgets. (btw, I'm DukTape, and this is my first post.)
DukTape, Oct 01 2005
  

       Hiya, [DukTape]. Ya see, I'm lazy and I don't want to do that work as the customer. This particular hardware store has thousands of miscellaneous unlabeled bits for sale. It might be a bit slow for a cashier to find the PLU for one or more of that many items.   

       By the way, I do know that this idea is idealized overkill. Sometimes I just can't help myself.   

       A machine vision system would have an extremely difficult time telling the difference between nuts of the same size but different hardness ratings i.e. grade 2 vs. 5 vs. 8.
half, Oct 01 2005
  

       I buy online, and they deliver.
angel, Oct 01 2005
  

       Well, no, but I keep a stock of my most-used items, and re-order when they start getting low. If I'd ordered yesterday, I could have them today.
angel, Oct 01 2005
  

       Perhaps there's a need for wandering hardware salesmen. Kind of like an ice cream truck.
Worldgineer, Oct 01 2005
  

       Giiitcha bolts here! Pound-a-pound! Pound-a-pound! Mooonkey wrenches! Goin cheap! Moooonkey wrenches! Giiitcha nuts an' bolts!
wagster, Oct 01 2005
  

       Weighing the total amount of individual items should arrive at the correct answer
Ah Supp, Nov 03 2011
  

       Could you explain that a bit more? Obviously just prime weights wouldn't work as otherwise a couple of wing-nuts (5g each) and a flange (13g) would appear to be the same as a grommet (23g).
hippo, Nov 03 2011
  

       //rubbish// Not at all; you simply have to arrange for the weights to be multiplicative rather than additive.
spidermother, Nov 03 2011
  

       Maybe we need to look at the grocery model: charge by the pound. Have several colored bags to put your nuts and bolts in, and have a price per pound chart on the wall. Pricing would change slightly compared to what you pay now, but not enough to matter for most customers.
Worldgineer, Nov 03 2011
  

       Hippo.// Many years ago, way back in olden days when there were movies without Sandra Bullock, there were diddy things known as coins. Banks weighed them to know exactly how many coins there were. Now. Have you ever known a Bank to err in favour of a customer? If Bankers place their trust in such a system, surely it has to be a contender. That is just about the nuts and bolts of it.
Ah Supp, Nov 04 2011
  

       [Ah Supp] Yes, I know that - but weighing is only done by banks when counting coins of one denomination. The (now deleted) annotation I was responding to suggested it would work for a mixture of denominations.
hippo, Nov 04 2011
  

       My take on this is to use various UV dyes, one for each price range of material. Then group all the same colours in different bags, weigh them and multiply by the cost per unit weight. (UV so the decorative stuff doesn't get ruined).
Ling, Nov 04 2011
  

       //Hippo// I see your point. The weighing would indeed only work if items were separated into individual groups in the first instance. Mayhap work is already in progress to develop an airport type X-ray device to identify, differentiate and count such goods.
Ah Supp, Nov 04 2011
  

       Or they could make items that weigh the same, cost the same.
pocmloc, Nov 04 2011
  

       //pocmloc// Good solution.
Ah Supp, Nov 05 2011
  
      
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