The COVID playbook for promoting safety in industrial settings is well known by this point in the pandemic. Take employees’ temperature before they enter the facility. Make sure workers are six feet apart while waiting to have their temperature taken. Stations where one employee need to interact with other employees should be protected with plexiglass. Have employees wear masks at work. Create one-way paths for movement through a facility. Make sure workers stay six feet apart while working. At breaks, make sure seats at tables, and the tables themselves, are far enough apart to enforce social distancing.
But there is the playbook, and then there is playbook execution. It is not always easy to stay six feet apart while working. Further, a worker may show up for work and not have an elevated temperature. You might not discover they are sick until the next day or even several days later.
Warehouses, though, have two technologies in widespread use that, with the proper modifications, make it easier to provide a safe environment for employees and customers.
A warehouse management system (WMS) is a solution used in the warehouse to drive both better productivity and ensure that work was done accurately. So, for example, a WMS sends instructions to a radio frequency (RF) barcode device that a worker is carrying that says go to location 279 and pick three items. The location has a bar code on it. The worker uses the RF gun to scan the barcode at that location. The device then signals the picker that he is at the right location. The RF device then might ask the worker to acknowledge that they have picked three items. In short, the RF guns help ensure the right items and the right number of items have been picked. Pick accuracy at warehouses that use both WMS and RF guns will be above 99% and, in many warehouses, exceeds 99.9%. This leads to happy customers they ordered.
RF Guns Can Help Enforce Social Distancing
Honeywell Productivity Solutions and Services is one of the largest suppliers of RF guns. Honeywell offers a software solution called Operational Intelligence that is a centralized, cloud-based platform to manage the performance of their mobile RF devices. This software understand when the devices are not performing as designed and thus when maintenance is needed. The software can also provide operational intelligence on warehouse operations. For example, a dashboard can show congestion points in the warehouse so that flow in the warehouse can be improved.
The Honeywell devices have embedded hardware sensors – as many as nine in some devices. These sensors can detect things like how hot the device is, whether it has been dropped, signal strength, and other things as well. This Software as a Service (SaaS) solution continuously extracts performance data that is periodically sent to the cloud for analysis. Customers typically bundle the $25 fee for this software (by device by year) with the hardware service fee.
This is a Cloud-based software solution that is frequently enhanced. Customers get the new features as part of their annual fee. After COVID hit, Honeywell enhanced Operational Intelligence to monitor on-site social distancing compliance by monitoring the proximity between Honeywell devices. If two devices come within six feet of each other, the software creates an alert – a notification that can be sent to both the workers involved and their manager, that social distancing guidelines have been breached. The software can also instruct workers at the end of the shift to clean the device and then have workers in the next shift sanitize the device again before using it.
Hilmer Rivera – The Global General Manager of Software at Honeywell Productivity Solutions and Services – explained to me how this works. “Think of the game Marco Polo. It is like that. As a device emits a signal, it is like the device is saying ‘Marco.’ Another device emits a ‘Polo’ response. The devices are measuring the strength of signals going out and signals coming back. The strength of the signal determines the distance between the devices.”
The devices can be configured remotely. Further, the social distancing alerts are also configurable. A facility with excellent air flow might decide on a 10-foot social distance alert rather than 6 feet, for example. It is not only the distance that is configurable, it the amount of time devices are in proximity to each other that matters. “If people are inside of six feet of each other a fraction of a second, Mr. Rivera pointed out, “that is probably not an issue, but if they are in proximity to each other for longer than five seconds, a facility might decide to classify that as an incident.”
WMS Enhancements Can Provide Contact Tracing
The warehouse management system does not just optimize the way work is done; it creates a log of what was done. The WMS also understands when goods were shipped and who they were shipped to.
Körber, consisting of original brands HighJump and inconso, is a leading provider of WMS. Enterprise applications – like WMS – are enhanced on a regular basis. For customers that have a maintenance package – or those who have bought a software-as-a-service solution – new functionality becomes available on a regular basis. Customers access that new functionality when they upgrade their solution or they may deploy app extensions that may be downloaded from the Körber Customer Portal.
The K.Motion Warehouse Advantage solution (one of the company’s WMSs) leverages the Körber One adaptability platform that enables extensions to be built by Körber, Körber partners or Körber customers to the core solution. Given the immediate need for contact tracing in light of the Coronavirus, Körber made the K.Sight Contact Tracer app station immediately available for customer or partner self-service download.
Brent Forden– Vice President of Product Management, Product Development at Körber – explained how this new enhancement works. The contract tracing extension takes advantage of the customer, order, and worker pick path information contained in the system. When giving instructions to workers, the WMS is sending them along certain paths or into certain zones in the warehouse. The system is doing this in a manner that is designed to minimize the total distance required to complete the task. Minimizing distances also reduces the time it takes to do the job; this improves productivity. The RF barcode scan provides a time stamp that tells the system when workers have been in the same zone at approximately the same time.
Let’s assume a worker shows up for work on Monday, does not have a temperature, and works the day. Tuesday, he shows up and he does have a high temperature. He is then sent to be tested for COVID.
Using the enhancement, a manager can go into the system and discover which workers have worked in the same zone less than 10 minutes of each other or within 10 to 60 minutes of each other (the time periods are configurable). Those workers can then be instructed to get a test as well. These are first level contacts to the potentially infected worker.
But these first level contacts may have also come into relatively close contact with other workers. These other workers are second level contacts. A company may decide it wants those workers tested as well.
The zones where the infected picker worked are also understood. Those zones can be designated to be immediately sanitized.
But it is not just a matter of figuring out the workers that need testing, the WMS also has the customer information. If a shipment is headed to a customer, but the shipment will take more than 12 hours to arrive, the company may decide that customer has nothing to worry about. But if the shipment is due to arrive in less than 12 hours after a potential infection incident, the customer can be notified. The exact container or pallet that may contain a product with COVID germs can be identified. That pallet can be quarantined or given additional cleaning if it is packaged. Or if it is an open container – with fresh food in it, for example – it can be destroyed. Other pallets or containers that have not been contaminated can proceed in the normal check-in process at the customer site.
It is fortunate that these warehouse solutions are collecting the kind of data needed for social distancing alerts and contract tracing. It is also nice that companies that have these solutions don’t have to pay more to enhance a warehouse’s safety.