As supply chains have become more complex and handle greater volumes of goods at a faster pace, sensor technology has emerged as one way to improve efficiency, optimize employee skills, address labor challenges and meet customer expectations.
“Over the past 15 years, it has been startling to see how demand on warehouses and distribution centers have outpaced the ability of people in the facilities to meet the demand,” said Garrett Place, robotics product marketing manager at MHI member ifm efector, inc. “Customers used to be happy to receive an item a few days after ordering, but now the expectation is much quicker. We want the time between the placement of the order to sitting on the dock for shipment to be no more than one hour,” he said. Even if a company wants to add staff, it is difficult to recruit distribution and service associates, he added. “The push to automate more tasks using autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that rely on sensor technology is one way distribution centers and logistics companies can extend the capabilities of their current staff.”
Sensor technology and the data that it collects have evolved from “nice to have” to “required to optimize facility operations,” said John Rosenberger, director of iWAREHOUSE GATEWAY and Global Telematics at MHI member Raymond Corp. “All areas of the supply chain are moving faster now, and even the most experienced managers need the support of technology to know what is happening, and why, throughout the facility,” he said. “The size of warehouses, manufacturing facilities and distribution centers also add to the challenge.”
Adoption of sensor technology for operations-related activities such as monitoring vehicles use that includes drive and idle time, performance and energy levels support proactive maintenance schedules to keep equipment running and minimize unplanned downtime in the facility, said Rosenberger. “Other technology is focused on operator assistance with real-time sensors that detect objects in the pathway of a forklift to reduce incidents with racks, broken pallets in the aisle or pedestrians. “We are seeing more purchasing departments requiring new equipment to include sensor technology.”
While sensors provide a valuable safety component and help equipment operators work efficiently, the real value of the technology is realized when “trapped data is unlocked,” said Place. Whether it is creating a preventative maintenance schedule or replacing a motor or battery when it shows signs of degradation, the data collected via sensors can tell a facility manager how the equipment is performing, he said. “It is never a good idea to run equipment until it fails, because when the failure occurs during peak operations, the downtime can affect all areas of the facility,” he said. “Data can also show when photoelectric sensors need to be cleaned to improve efficiency by comparing equipment operations in one zone of the facility to another.”
Challenges and solutions
There are challenges to implementing sensor technology and the tools needed to analyze data. “Cost is usually the first challenge because any time you add new technology to equipment, there are additional costs,” said Rosenberger. “Technology enables the capture of more data, so owners and managers need to decide if they are willing to pay to access that data and use it to improve operations.” Because predictable information is needed to ensure that a manufacturing line stays open, a package is on the dock at the right time or a box includes all items ordered, the cost of the technology is usually outweighed by the value added, he said.
Of course, just collecting data is not enough to add value—a manager must be able to view data in a way that identifies opportunities to increase efficiency and optimize operations throughout the facility.
“Almost everything in a warehouse, distribution center or manufacturing facility is collecting data, but the challenge is aggregating the siloed data from many different systems,” said Rosenberger. “Aggregating telematics and data from real-time location systems (RTLS) let you know how many hours and where in the facility a truck operates, so if you notice forklift trucks sitting on the dock waiting, you can possibly rework the facility delivery schedules so product arrives more evenly over time and the material handling equipment and operators do not have to wait,” he said.
While utilization data comes from one system, other data sets from different systems can be combined with it to provide a more holistic view of what is happening in the facility. “You can combine the truck utilization data and RTLS information with truck maintenance records to compare identical trucks,” explained Rosenberger. If one requires more maintenance than another, you can look to see if the zone in which the truck operates has wider floor seams or potholes that cause more wear and tear on the truck. “Identifying the need to repair the joints to provide a smoother ride pays off in less maintenance and less downtime for the forklift,” he said. “The ability to aggregate data provides this greater visibility into operations.”
Connecting disparate systems can be accomplished through the use of a REST API. An API is an application programming interface, which is a set of rules that define how applications or devices connect to and communicate with each other. A REST API is an API that conforms to the design principles of the REST, or representational state transfer architectural style. “Conventions like REST APIs are required for any technology by vendors and customers to allow managers to get their data out of a system for their own specialized uses,” said Rosenberger. This ability is important because every facility has unique challenges and needs, and while technology companies provide reports with their systems, the reports are based on data collected for that system. “Customers own their data, so if a manager wants to recognize the top 10 drivers in terms of low impacts and most vehicle usage as part of an internal safety incentive program, the telematics data from the forklift can be combined with HR data from another company system to identify the top 10.”
The capability to produce trend reports specific to a facility or a situation by using data from multiple sources can also be accomplished through the use of IO-Link, an open standard supported by sensor and controls companies, said Place. “The IO-Link master replaces a traditional analog input card and allows for a digital communication path to process sensors,” he said. “The IO-Link master creates a digital path to a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC) from the fieldmounted sensor.”
Because the needs of the supply chain are always changing, material handling professionals also want the ability to quickly adjust sensors and data parameters to match changing needs, said Andreas Pedross-Engel, Ph.D., founder and chief technology officer at MHI member ThruWave Inc. Machine learning algorithms can be used to create a system that learns from the data and adapts to changes without relying on a predetermined equation as a model. “Machine learning can be incorporated to improve the operation and efficiency of the technology to provide the flexibility needed,” he said.