Digital Innovation in the Modern Warehouse


Supply Chain SummitDigital innovation in the warehouseI had the pleasure of moderating a conference panel on “digital innovation in the modern warehouse” at eyefortransport’s 3PL & Supply Chain Summit on June 12th. The session panelists included Joe Couto of HighJump, Ottavio Saluzzi of SSI SCHAEFER, and Tom Corbett of Pepperl+Fuchs. I started off the session by providing my perspective on the terms “digitization” and “digital innovation.” I explained that I see this phenomenon as an exponential growth in digital data being generated and computation being applied to harness this data in ways that provide a transformative change in the level of system functioning and decision making.

I like to use the example of consumer mapping applications such as Waze to illustrate the point. GPS has been available for decades, as have routing applications. It is the combination of these two technologies, along with the wealth of real-time data points that have allowed Waze and similar applications to provide real-time traffic data, estimated commute times, and more efficient alternative routes. The increase in real-time data within the warehouse, along with the long-established data sources and application capabilities, is being similarly recognized for its potential.  Since the wealth of data is a catalyst for digital innovation, I thought it would be fitting to start the discussion with Tom, the photoelectric sensors product manager at Pepperl+Fuchs.

Clint (LV):          Tom, can you tell us about the applications for sensors in the warehouse and the types of sensor technology used in these applications?

Tom Corbett (P+F):         There is a variety of sensors in use in automated warehouses such as simple photoelectric sensors that tell you if an object is present or not, and barcode scanners to track and read what product is being presented on conveyor, an AS/RS, or on a crane, etc. There is also a variety of positioning sensors used in AS/RS systems and those that provide information in wireless data transmission. The sensors on conveyors may simply provide an on/off signal indicating that something is present or not, while barcode scanners and ID systems tell you more about the product itself such as the identity of the product, or maybe how many products have passed. There is a whole host of data provided by positioning systems, such as location of a crane on an x and y axis or the location of a product. Sensor devices also provide the ability to look along a path to make sure nothing is sticking out, for instance, to assure safe movements.  Finally, there are specialized devices that may provide information such as how far away a crane is or how high pallets are stacked, etc.

Clint (LV):            Ottavio, how does the warehouse control system use sensor data in the warehouse that indicate information such as presence or location of inventory or items, knowledge of machinery or sub-system capacity, and available capacity to help a warehouse run more efficiently?

Ottavio (SSI):     Sensors, readers, and other IoT devices are the gateway between the physical and the digital world. They play a crucial role in maintaining high throughput while giving the system the possibility to react in real-time to sudden capacity constraints. Also, the integration of real-time location systems (RTLS) may greatly increase asset visibility, especially in very large facilities.

Clint (LV):           I have been told that the cold chain has a strong use case for digitization. Can you tell us how your customers are using sensors and HighJump solutions to support cold chain integrity?

Joe (HJ):              We are seeing sensors placed on pallets of goods at the source.  The data from these tags will direct actions at the warehouse level. The sensor readings include temperature and humidity. If the temperature exceeds a threshold, the system will trigger according to predetermined rules and warehouse workers will put product on hold, move the pallet to another area, and notify owner of the goods. HighJump also has actionable alerts that feed what the temperature should be, or if it should be put on hold until the final disposition is notified. There is some activity that happens in the background and some that trigger alerts, depending on certain options in the system.

Clint (LV):           Ottavio, I was informed that Pepperl+Fuchs used its own sensors and SSI SCHAEFER’s Lighthouse solution in its automated warehouse in Texas. Can you tell us how SSI SCHAEFER uses raw sensor data to support functions such as preventative maintenance of equipment in the warehouse?

Ottavio (SSI):     Lighthouse (control center for automated warehouses) gathers information from a large number of sources. It integrates sensor data from AS/RS, vibration information and other data, and then interprets that raw data and synthesizes it into a meaningful preventative maintenance use case. The SCADA module visualization system provides information about every possible device within the warehouse ecosystem, all in real-time. And it gathers relevant key performance indicators within the material flow system and order processing for material flow performance, picking performance, and other KPIs.

Clint (LV):           Joe, there has been a real-time element to WMS for a number of years. Scanning with RF guns informs the system almost instantaneously of inventory availability, movement from storage slots, etc.  How do you see the WMS as facilitating the process of managing this data and other sources in addition to RF scans?

Joe (HJ):              With RF guns, you know workers or items are at point A or point B when scanning a bin, etc., but you don’t know where they are in between these discrete steps. RTLS is really knowing where an individual is at any given time in a facility, and then based on that knowledge, making decisions such as how to change the allocation to optimize in terms of slotting, allocating product, tasks to an operator, etc. It is real-time location information that is suited to leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities in terms of pushing work to the worker and how best to slot and optimize space. It is about optimizing labor and space.

Clint (LV):           Warehouse labor shortages are really becoming serious problem, especially in the US and Western Europe. Ottavio and Joe, what are your views and your companies’ initiatives on labor management systems as a resource to manage warehouse labor in this environment.

Ottavio (SSI):     SSI offers as part of its WAMAS software, Labor and Resource Management. We see the need for labor management as increasingly important, even in highly automated warehouses, to gather data from workers to determine staffing requirements for peak and off-peak periods.

Joe (HJ):              Labor management is central to understanding a fulfillment business. Labor is deployed, then the system helps determine points of inefficiency. And labor management isn’t just about the four walls. For example, there may be certain products being shipping to me for which unloading will take longer or certain plants that ship to me that take longer to unload. Labor management drives a lot of behavioral change in the warehouse. HighJump is currently expanding its mobile solution capabilities to allow workers to get up and running without training. the mobile applications will essentially on-board new workers without the need for training. This is where HighJump is currently focused.

Clint (LV):            Thank you gentlemen and thank you eyefortransport for inviting us to this summit and providing us with the opportunity to provide our perspective on digital innovation in the warehouse.

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