Emerging technology is presenting us with some exciting options for supply chain management that will enhance the power of what people are now doing in the warehouse and on the road. While some of these ideas may seem to be straight from the fiction of "Star Wars" or the "The Matrix," they are either already available or in advanced development.
The look and operation of warehouses will be changing dramatically during the coming years. New technologies promise great improvements in productivity, visibility and reliability. These changes will challenge everyone in the supply chain sector to innovate smartly and successfully. While some jobs may be lost, others will be created. The opportunities for those who are successful in this environment will be tremendous. That is why it’s important to stay up to date on what is available, and to carefully evaluate each new technology in light of your business model. Here is a look at what’s coming down the road or already at our doorstep.
Imagine walking around the warehouse with a smartphone in hand, stopping in front of a pallet, and having the correct, detailed picking information pop up on your screen based on an image captured by the camera
In addition, there would be a detailed layout of how to pick the product into your shipping container with a “Tetris-like” overlay shown on the screen. Alternatively, you could put on a special pair of glasses or contact lenses that would project the steps necessary to repair an out-of-service forklift. The reduction of time to perform a task along with the addition of specific instructions for cubing containers or repairing equipment would add efficiency gains and productivity increases not considered in the past.
This use of Head-Up Display (HUD) could assist workers with everything from proper pallet and truck loading to a wide variety of training procedures. It could help supervisors instruct new employees and supplement quality assurance with virtual displays of product information for picking and put-aways.
Use cases tested in Europe have had strong results for the addition of augmented reality devices such as Microsoft Hololens, when used in combination with voice-picking technology. At complex distribution centers, this combination can be used to drive improvements in: picking accuracy (head-up display of exact information and immediate verification); travel optimization (head-up display of the most efficient route to travel to perform the next task); and pallet layout (head-up display of how to stack cases) that improves stability and decreases in-transit damage.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are currently being tested for various applications in logistics. Some of the potential uses in supply chain management are:
• RFID yard management using automated flights to scan the yard and read RFID tags mounted to trailers;
• building/property inspection by manned or unmanned flights to scan racks, building ceiling/roof, tops of dock doors, etc., for any damage or maintenance needs; and
• activity observations that use video capture to create work measurements and engineered standards for warehouse tasks.
Using automated devices to manage routine and repetitive tasks is not new in our industry, but the ways we use robotics are constantly changing. Some of the newest trends include the use of self-propelled stretch wrappers that can wrap any pallet anywhere, rather than moving the pallet to a central wrapping location. Automation is also being explored for maintenance with sweeper-scrubbers that can be run lights-out to clean warehouses.
The automated storage and retrieval systems that have been in use for years are quickly getting smaller and smarter. There are already collaborative robots on the market with artificial intelligence components that help them adjust to real-life situations and adapt their behavior accordingly.
The next phase that is quickly evolving is the combination of robotics with automated guided vehicles, marrying the best of both technologies to further propel warehouse productivity to new heights.
Automated Guided Vehicles
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) have been around since the 1950s, but are gaining ground as a significant efficiency enhancement in warehouse operations.
Automated forklifts are used for directed loading, unloading and staging at the end of aisles for put-aways and pick-ups. There are conversion units for existing lifts which can be run in automated mode when needed to speed up the staging of product. This can be a huge cost savings when updating fleets.
Automated tuggers keep pickers and replenishment staff in their zones while the tugger does the work of transporting the empty and full containers or pallets without the picker ever leaving their assigned area, thus improving productivity.
Advances in 3D printing have been explosive, and we’re just beginning to explore what it can do for the supply chain industry.
We are able to print customized robotic “arms,” “claws,” and “grabbers”—known as end affecters—to facilitate better picking. We can even print and customize accessories for our current inventory of material handling equipment, such as scanner caddies, tape containers or ruggedized tablet holders. Prototypes of specific parts can be printed and assessed before spending considerable time and money perfecting the actual component needed.
Smart sensors and self-monitoring
Wearable technology and mobile applications have been revolutionizing supply chain management.
Smart tags—worn as a bracelet like a FitBit—can be programmed to monitor activity and safety concerns such as improper lifting. Wearable RF allows for hands-free operation inside the warehouse, and voice and wearable devices can be combined for even higher efficiency. There are mobile apps being developed that provide immediate visibility to dashboards to facilitate data-driven decision making.
Virtual digital assistants—such as Apple’s Siri—that use voice recognition and artificial intelligence can research needed information and carry out electronic tasks. Imagine sitting at your desk and querying any information you need from your supply chain execution systems (WMS, TMS, OMS, YMS, etc.) or your supply chain intelligence systems, and receiving that information immediately, rather than asking a customer service representative or combing through spreadsheets to find the right piece of data.
While these technologies seem limitless, there are still many questions to be answered about practicality, cost and regulatory issues. Fostering innovation and facilitating change is never easy, but it is worth it when we see cutting-edge solutions developed for our complex supply chain challenges.
Kenco Innovation Labs
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