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Transforming Warehousing and Supply Chain Management with IoT and Robotics

Reading time: 8 minutes

Warehousing has long remained a costly activity within supply chain management. The average warehouse in the US with 100 non-supervisory employees costs more than   to maintain in labor expenses alone.

However, the bigger problem is that most warehouses do not generate as much value as they could. For instance, on average retail inventory is accurate   of the time due to limited inventory visibility. And when it comes to goods-in-process, human error plagues  .

Clearly, warehousing and inventory management is ripe for digital transformation and there’s a multitude of ways it could be orchestrated.

Inbound logistics

Trucks entering the warehouse can be equipped with RTLS tags – a special device capturing location data – and stream that data straight to your warehouse management software.

Digitizing this process allows you to capture several benefits at once:

  • Automatically locate different assets on the facility premises in real-time;
  • Programmatically assign a docking slot, optimize parking and offloading;
  • Devise better, “just-in-time” and “just-in-sequence” delivery schedules;
  • Improve security by marking certain assets that cannot leave the facility.

In a separate article, we have further explored several other tech-centric ways of   that could be realized as part of your supply chain digitization initiative.

Inventory Management and Visibility

Switching from a paper-and-pencil pick/inventory system to an integrated digital one can result in a   in overall productivity, a 10-20% gain in space usage, and a 15-30% efficiency increase in use of stock.

What should such a system include?

  • RFID tags – lightweight devices that include custom information (such as product class, provenance, etc.) for every box/item delivered. RFID tags can be easily scanned even without a direct line of sight and the track-and-trace data will become visible to the entire supply chain.
  • IoT sensors. IoT gadgets can be strategically placed on the premises to capture inventory data in real-time and indicate the whereabouts of specific goods. The particular appeal of IoT-powered warehouse management is that it’s fully automated with little-to-no room for human error.
  • Robotics and autonomous equipment. Automated warehouse management solutions can automatically determine storage space for every delivery and call in autonomous equipment to transport the goods to the right location.
  • Wearables and AR systems. Low-efficiency tasks such as picking goods to fulfil an order can be majorly transformed with innovative wearables and AR systems that will aid on-site workers. DHL, for instance, recently tested smart glasses at one of their facilities in the Netherlands. The software created optimized routes for employees and streamed them to the glasses, offering them a better way to locate the right item and faster speed. Post-trial the company reported a   in overall picking efficiency and a significant reduction in errors.

Augmented Teams with Collaborative Robots (Cobots)

Not every warehouse will have the capacity to immediately adopt fully autonomous equipment, especially, considering the number of infrastructure changes required. Collaborative robots (cobots) emerged as a middleware solution for such facilities.

What is a Cobot?

Corobots are light-weight, mobile plug and play devices that can effectively collaborate with human staff on the factory floors and in the warehouses. Using advanced sensors, cognitive computing and computer vision technology, these bots can be easily programmed to perform a wide range of tasks such as:

  • Hand guiding: Just like traditional industrial robots, cobots have a pressure-sensitive device at the end of its arm, and can be programmed to pick, hold and move all sorts of objects.
  • Goods transportation: Equipped with power and force limiting functionality, cobots can securely move around the premises, navigate obstacles and reverse movement whenever it’s necessary to avoid impact.
  • Collaboration. Safe motion control functionality, including safe stop, safe torque, safe position and others, allows cobots to work both independently and in close proximity to humans. Whenever it senses that a worker is nearby, it can stop all motion until the person leaves the safety zone. Alternatively, it can be programmed to slow down whenever the human is at the safety perimeter and completely stop if a worker gets too close.

Unlike heavier industrial robots, cobots also have an attractive price tag of   on average, making them more attainable for smaller warehousing facilities. Perhaps, that’s the reason why Barclays Capital predicts that in one year the market for cobots can increase from over $100 million in 2018 to $3 billion.

Indeed, the advantages of collaborative robots over other types of autonomous equipment are significant:

  • Cobots are easy to program: Some solutions are plug and play. Others may require certain changes to your infrastructure for smooth operations. However, they are not as complex to implement as larger industrial or fully-autonomous robotic solutions.
  • Increased mobility: cobots can be dispatched whenever they are most needed and can be seamlessly redeployed to support multiple applications on a per-need basis.
  • Safety: They can effectively outmaneuver obstacles, adjust their speed and stop work altogether whenever human staff is in close vicinity.

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are becoming a commonplace element in digital warehousing setups. Such systems can be programmed to automatically place and retrieve goods from a specified storage location and handle tasks such as order fulfillment, WIP (Work-in-Process) storage, dynamic replenishment, finished goods storage and others.

Typically, this technology operates in conjunction with warehouse execution software (WES) that manages different aspects of order processing. The largest draw of AS/RS is that it allows you to automate labor-intensive and repetitive tasks, and re-assign your personnel to higher-value tasks.

Below is a video illustrating how such new-gen automated warehouses can function:

The common types of AS/RS technology are:

  • Unit-Load AS/RS – can seamlessly handle large loads of goods, and are a solid option for facilities with limited pallet-level storage and a strong need for quick retrieval. The typical unit-load AS/RS are movable and fixed-aisle unit-load cranes.
  • Mini-Load AS/RS Cranes – operate in a similar fashion to unit-load equipment, but can work between narrower rows of goods, and move smaller items such as cartons or trays.
  • Vertical Lift Modules (VLM) are enclosed systems with an inserter extractor that can locate the necessary tray and delivers it to an operator, responsible for completing the order before the tray is returned. You can see such system in action in this video:
  • Mini-Load AS/RS Shuttles run on a track in between racking structures. Depending on your needs, they can be set up to operate on a single or multi-level. Whenever an item is requested, the shuttle will move to the location, pick up the item and then bring it back to a workstation or transfer it to a conveyor.

Leveraging AS/RS and conveyors can help you significantly speed up the order pickup process.   suggests that this combo can reduce the average walking time during manual order pickup by up to 40%.

Beyond that, such systems have a major potential for increasing order accuracy levels up to  ; reduce inefficiencies and traffic jams caused by the errors in product delivery; ultimately minimizing waste and boosting output levels.

Wearable IoT devices for Employees’ Health and Safety

Warehouse workers are already wearing safety glasses on the shop floor, so why not augment them even further to enhance safety and overall well-being. Here are just several emerging use cases of wearable IoT devices:

  • Smart glasses/watches can show a checklist of activities that should be performed next.
  • Smart glasses can help automate simple tasks such as barcode scanning in warehouses, so that employees do not need to put in extra effort into doing so with handheld scanners.
  • Haptic feedback from a smartwatch can gently notify the equipment operator about important events/announcements (e.g., another person approaching the safety zone) in loud environments.

DHL, for instance, conducted a   in a regional center in Singapore where they tested how smart wearables can be used to prevent warehousing accidents. Employees were supplied with gadgets to monitor their fatigue levels, suggest break periods and dispatch real-time alerts when they were in close proximity to dangerous moving equipment and machinery.

The tested setup operated in the following manner:

  • The wearable IoTs and data transmitters tracked employee movement around the facility, displaying the distance and a number of people in a specific work area.
  • Whenever an employee approached a forklift, the operator was immediately notified via their wearable tag with an audio and vibration alert.
  • Wrist sensors measured every employee’s heart rate to capture early symptoms of fatigue. Supervisors were immediately notified whenever an employee’s heart rate dropped below the normal levels, and the employee was encouraged to take a break.
  • The IoT system also generated heat maps that showed busy and high-risk areas, enabling supervisors to proactively review traffic flows and take respective measures.

Post-trial, DHL also noted that such IoT setup can be adapted to a variety of industry scenarios ranging from truck driver fatigue to cold chain temperature exposure. In general, with the help of IoT, your company can gauge more information about the workers’ well-being, performance, and efficiency and proactively optimize the warehouse operations.

Conclusions

Ultimately, this is how warehouse Industry 4.0 will look like – effective, data-driven and largely automated with the help of robotics, IoT and analytics solutions. Already, several major players are switching from labor-intensive setups to highly automated ones. Hence, it’s no longer a question of whether you should digitize processes within your warehouse; it’s how you will approach this process.

Infopulse would be delighted to step in as your strategic software development partner and help you integrate new technologies into your warehouse management system to achieve greater efficiency and cost reductions.