From automating inventory tracking with robotics to ruggedizing handheld devices for rough environments, IoT is bringing new changes to warehousing.
The largest of warehouses can stretch for blocks. It has miles of concrete floors that aging feet must walk each day as workers stock and pick items for orders. A significant chunk of warehouse operations is still paper-based. Many different items are now occupying shelves, a reflection of how companies have customized products to meet a diverse range of customer wants and needs. Supply chains are stressed. Warehouse inventors aren’t always accurate. In some cases, it’s difficult to maintain the quality of goods.
In short, it’s the perfect storm for Internet of Things technology to come in with automation that can simplify work processes and improve warehouse operations.
Automation is the key
Warehouse managers and employees want automation that can streamline workloads and render more visibility into warehouse operations.
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IoT is ideal for this. A combination of sensors and hand-held, voice-activated IoT devices are tethered into a network. Information is fed into a warehouse management system so inventory can be tracked and traced. Real-time data is fed into analytics programs. The analytics help managers assess where warehouse bottlenecks are and how to resolve them.
Driverless forklifts and inventory-toting robots fan the floor, moving heavy packages from point to point. This reduces wear and tear on workers. Perishable items such as medicines and foods can be monitored for safety and freshness, which prevents spoilage.
How IoT is automating the warehouse
Inventory track and trace
As truck fleets are equipped with onboard IoT sensors to track and trace inventory, the notion of a stationary physical warehouse for inventory distribution is being reinvented. In some cases, companies aren’t using warehouses at all. Instead, they use their moving fleets of trucks as warehouses, moving goods directly from producers to customers. The trucks are equipped with IoT sensors and instrumentation that track, trace and adjust inventory.
Smarter barcodes are enabling warehouse workers to better track inventory items and item changes. Warehouse operators use both 1D and 2D barcodes with their WMS systems. The linear 1D barcodes make up UPC labels and are handy because they can easily be changed.
An alternate option is the 2D barcode, which is used in more complex products like medical equipment. The 2D barcode cannot be changed as easily as a 1D barcode, but it is able to carry much more information, such as photos, instructions, website addresses and voice-based data.
In both cases, warehouse workers can use handheld or voice-activated IoT devices to automatically capture data and send it to a centralized inventory management system. This promotes greater inventory accuracy.
Handsfree IoT technology
Handheld RFID devices have been a staple in warehouses for years, but they hamper worker efficiency when it comes to stocking items or picking items for orders. In an item stock or pick, workers must record the activity on their handheld devices, but they must then set the devices down so they can do the physical stock or pick. Today, this inefficiency is being addressed by the introduction of voice-activated IoT headsets that enable workers to report stocking or picking activity into a WMS system by voice so their hands are free to do the stock or pick.
Robots, drones, automated conveyor systems and self-driving forklifts
Tesla’s Nevada warehouse is 5.3 million square feet, and warehouse sizes for Boeing, Volkswagen and Amazon aren’t far behind. That’s a lot of floor space for warehouse workers to cover. To solve the issue, companies are moving to IoT technology in the form of robots, drones and automated conveyor belts.
Drones can check stock levels and monitor security in large warehouses. Automated conveyor belts equipped with IoT sensors and equipment can move and track goods between stations. Self-driving forklifts can move goods around the warehouse, and robots can be trained by human operators to perform goods packaging. All can patch into a WMS system to report real-time data and status.
Help for the yard
The most neglected area of the warehouse is the yard. Companies that implement WMS don’t always make in-kind system investments in yard management. They manage yards by walking around, with employees inspecting trucks that are there to load or unload goods.
Sometimes there are costly delays in loading and unloading. In one case, a warehouse manager shared with me that they had overlooked a truck filled with lettuce. The truck had been sitting in the yard for three weeks, never unloaded. Needless to say, the entire shipment spoiled.
Today, warehouse yard management is being aided by the implementation of yard management systems and by the addition of IoT devices and sensors that monitor cargo. “Use by” dates and readable barcodes are stamped on individual boxes of produce that reflect the time of day when product was picked. In the case of strawberries, for example, a box picked early in the morning will have a longer shelf life than a box that is picked in the afternoon. The interiors of truck containers are outfitted with IoT sensors that continuously measure humidity and temperature to ensure that perishables stay fresh.
In the warehouse yard itself, employees are equipped with ruggedized IoT smartphones and devices that can withstand dusty yard conditions, outside heat or cold and accidental “drops” of devices on floors.
Warehouses remain challenged in areas like inventory management, personnel, space utilization and returns. The good news is that they are moving forward. Automation will be a game-changer in future progress, as will system integration. In both scenarios, IoT will play an indispensable role.
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