Future of Warehousing Is in IoT

The forklift operator adjusts his smart glasses to properly fit his head and presses the power button. The glasses immediately send him visual and auditory instructions. He’s directed to pick a product in a specific aisle and row.
As he nears the pick location, a green rectangle appears on his glasses to highlight his destination.
Once he picks the item, the glasses’ built-in scanner verifies that he has the right package, then directs him to the appropriate loading dock.
All the while, sensors strategically placed throughout the warehouse are collecting and enabling the free flow of real-time data.

This scenario is just one part of today’s “connected warehouse.” Enabled by Internet of Things (IoT) technology, these modern distribution centers are becoming increasingly common, as companies try to cope with pressures from e-commerce.

In fact, according to one recent survey, the global IoT market in warehouse management is expected to reach $19.06 billion by 2025.

Vision or Reality?

But is this concept more vision than reality?

The fact of the matter is, right now, it’s mostly vision. In reality, the majority of distribution centers are not currently using IoT-connected sensors or equipment. And while many warehouse automation systems generate data in real time, they’re usually wired into a warehouse control system (WCS) or warehouse execution system (WES).

However, the IoT-connected warehouse is gradually materializing. That’s because DC automation and materials handling vendors, who already provide WCS and WES software, are increasingly developing warehouse IoT solutions.

What’s It All About?

Industrial IoT is all about connecting sensors, controllers or equipment to the internet or to private cloud-based technology in order to aggregate data for analysis. IoT systems interface seamlessly with all other automation systems, including robotics.

And while that connectivity is vital, it’s the data (particularly Big Data) and its analysis that’s really key.

Scott Wahl, vice president of global software for Dematic, a warehouse automation and WES provider, put it this way:  “We see the power of IoT as being connected to Big Data and cloud capabilities, because now we can bring together multiple disparate data sources into one place.”

According to Carlos Lemus, lead IoT engineer for Bastian Solutions, “IoT is almost a misnomer, because it places the focus on connecting to the ‘things,’ but the true value of IoT comes from the data.”

The IoT possibilities in a warehouse include real-time location tracking of goods, workers and equipment. For example, location technology built into mobile devices–like the smart glasses described above–allows for continual visibility of a picker’s exact location (a location “beacon”), rather than just a rough idea based on their last scan or system-directed pick.

Dubbed “hyper-locationing,” this IoT technology combines with analytics to enable smarter decision-making about what each picker should do next. IoT helps eliminate unnecessary steps. The systems and the analytics are smart enough to determine which steps should be followed and when.

Connecting Multiple Systems

But an effective IoT platform is not just about materials handling. Rather, it should capture data from multiple system types.

For instance, Iot technology can be used to tap into data from computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) software and other data-acquisition sources to arrive at a comprehensive view of “building health.”

It also aggregates data from building control and monitoring systems, in order to reduce energy consumption in everything from light fixtures to HVAC units. And this overall real-time view of systems and operations is provided on a single dashboard.

About Those Smart Glasses

Some of the most interesting IoT developments are in wearable devices. Smart glasses, smart watches and voice-controlled headsets are all being used in warehouse settings to improve operations.

Smart glasses are probably the most intriguing. Here’s how they work:

  • Powered by their own processor and battery, these high-tech glasses collect data from the building’s wireless network.
  • Then they project text and numbers onto a tiny screen that’s incorporated into the glasses.
  • From the user’s perspective, the display looks like full-sized text, overlaid on top of whatever “real world” scene the wearer is viewing at the time.

One cutting-edge developer of warehouse IoT is the German-based multinational software corporation SAP. The following video demonstrates SAP’s smart-glass application called SAP AR Warehouse Picker:

 

The idea is to give workers hands-free access to computer-generated info, eliminating the need to carry handheld scanners or written documents. The end result is a boost in productivity.

In fact, according to Jay Kim, chief strategy officer at software firm Upskill, the best results for smart-glass technology so far have indeed been in warehouse picking applications–where mistakes tend to be very expensive.

More Vendors on Board

As warehousing operations become more complicated and fast-paced, and IoT technology costs decrease, more DC-focused vendors are taking the plunge into IoT analytics.

For example, Cisco Systems, a multinational provider of networking and other high-tech equipment, is currently collaborating with key logistics partners to test the many ways in which IoT can improve overall logistics operations.

According to Jack Allen, Cisco’s senior director for global logistics, IoT may not change warehousing overnight, but it’ll certainly speed up processes. “Information is going to be so much more available and increasingly real time, enabling warehouses to be much faster and more agile,” he says.

“Much of the value in logistics isn’t just in moving the goods, but in understanding the information. That means quick answers to questions like, ‘Where is my shipment?’ or ‘When will I get my goods?’ or ‘Can this production line keep up with the demand requirement?’”

It does indeed appear that the future of warehousing is in IoT.


Sources:

Food Logistics

PR Newswire

Modern Materials Handling

DC Velocity