There’s such a lot of talk about automation and digitization within the supply chain and the technology behind it. You can read all about the trends: the Internet of Things, cloud computing, artificial intelligence and Industry 4.0 online. Dramatic changes are afoot to make processes more efficient in the “smart factory”, but all applications require man-machine collaboration. The provision of IT infrastructure and services such as data storage, processing power and application software solutions has laid the foundation for much more continuous improvement.
What does it mean for intralogistics?
The more a supply chain is able to integrate and coordinate its activities, the more likely it will be to optimize the flow of goods and react efficiently to changes in demand. Innovations such as the use of robots and drones, reducing energy consumption and light-based picking tools are changing the face of distribution centres and warehouses and responding to changing customer needs.
The growth of automation within manufacturing and distribution facilities had the unfortunate effect of increasing energy costs. Many projects are being undertaken to reduce the usage of gas, electricity, water and other forms of power. Although the main objective is to save direct costs there are additional benefits; companies can achieve their sustainability targets. Energy data collected from the components that drive equipment such as motors, pumps, gears and electronic can be analysed and usage calculated. This allows for taking advantage of lower tariffs and considering possible alternative sources of energy. Real-time information is also used to assess energy efficiency and make cost classifications which serve as a basis for developing better products and components.
Solar pipes that are made-up of highly reflective material can channel natural light into the warehouse. Wireless sensors can then reduce lighting levels during times when natural light is abundant to reduce consumption. Intelligent thermostats can adjust the heating or cooling when facilities aren’t in use or when facilities receive ample warm sunshine.
There is a clear understanding of the ability of drones to move goods in outside spaces but the handling qualities of drones enable them to be operated in confined spaces inside as well. They can easily be navigated around narrow alleys and tall shelves. Where there is heavy traffic at ground level, drones are doing their work in the air. The uses are many. They are being tested by the automotive company, Audi, for the speedy movement of spares and components to assembly lines and picking locations and returning unused items to stock. An unintended benefit is a reduction in employee injuries from less need to work at height.
Flying helpers are often less than 50cm wide, equipped with cameras, barcode scanners and telemeters. They can take photos of every storage location and work-in-progress making them ideal for stocktaking. This is a great boost for productivity and tedious manual counting of inventory. Security can be enhanced both inside and outside the facility using drones.
The use of robots is well-established within industrial production facilities. They are programmed to perform certain pre-defined activities, one such application is welding. Normally, to ensure the necessary quality levels of the welds the robots need to be manually adjusted or re-programmed periodically. Intelligent welding robots are now able to self-adjust using innovative detection and control technology.
With the growth in the application of electric and hybrid vehicles manufacturers have been challenged to provide more efficient charging stations. Innovators are developing more efficient and more powerful but compact electric vehicle chargers. Newer versions will constantly and automatically adjust to ensure the lowest possible energy loss, regardless of the input voltage and battery level.
Another innovation that seems simple enough is improving the communication of road transport arrivals and departures. Using a display screen that updates automatically, listing trucks and their estimated time of arrival (ETA) provides early information about impending delays to everyone within the whole supply chain, including customers and subcontractors.
Lots of innovative work is also being done in the area of picking-and-packing using pick-to-light and voice picking systems. Pick-to-light systems use LED technology allowing for paperless picking at many times the speed of manual picking. Companies that operate pick to light systems report that they can expect over 450 picks to be made per hour by an operator. This saves both human energy and cost. A light-guided system gives real-time feedback on order picking to identify any issues and also monitors productivity. This method is especially useful for small batches or one-piece picking, something that is becoming a major requirement due to the growth in e-commerce.
Blockchain technology is being applied in areas to provide certifications and traceability with the aim of verifying responsibility and ownership of a product from the beginning to the end of the supply chain. On a practical level for the consumer, self-service terminals are becoming more and more prevalent in everyday life, and already cover a wide range of services such as click-to-collect, administration and payment. They need to be available 24/7, on mobile devices and also make transactions faster to complete. This is still a work in progress.