Today’s warehouses and distribution centers are facing unprecedented challenges in their operations. They now have to work harder and faster to keep up with the speed of fulfillment expected by the modern consumer. These consumers—a large segment of which are millennials—have grown accustomed to the e-commerce experience, where they can get exactly what they want and when they want it. This places significant pressure on distribution centers to maximize efficiency and maintain order accuracy.
Moreover, many facilities now have to accommodate a growing number of SKUs, as manufacturers continue to expand their product offerings in response to consumer demand for variety. Organizations must thereby find ways to better utilize their existing storage space or budget for new construction.
These modern challenges require modern solutions. Warehouses and distribution centers must adapt, especially as other areas in the supply chain embrace the next generation of technology at the intersection of robotics, computers and the Internet of Things (IoT). Collectively, these technologies make up the fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as “Industry 4.0.”
Industry 4.0—where robots, computers and the IoT meet
The first Industrial Revolution emerged out of the dawn of mechanization and advent of the steam engine. The second was powered by electricity and the invention of electric motors, enabling the mass production of goods. In more recent years, microchips and computers led the third Industrial Revolution, which saw an increase in processing capacity in society and industry.
Now, the fourth—Industry 4.0—sees robots, computers and the IoT converging to create new cyberphysical environments, where companies can use automation to speed and scale up repeatable tasks, as well as use sensors to capture data on what these automated tools are doing and how they are performing.
Businesses can then take the captured data to find ways to improve processes or reorganize automation in real time. Industry 4.0 is creating more data-driven enterprises with the ability to pivot and innovate as needed. It is set to disrupt virtually every industry, including warehousing and logistics.
The new cyberphysical distribution center
In the modern cyberphysical environment, distribution centers can control as well as track and trace products from receiving, through storage and all the way to outbound shipping. Two networks make up the cyberphysical environment: the physical network of robotics and hardware and the cyber network that ties everything together through data.
- The physical network—nuts and bolts
The physical network of automated systems includes automated guided vehicles (AGVs), mobile robots, gantry robots, articulated robots, monorail transfers, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), conveyors, etc. These systems can move products between receiving, storage, preparation and loading with high precision and accuracy.
Notably, using high-density storage and an AS/RS, facilities can house more products in up to 50 percent less space, which can help solve for SKU proliferation. And thanks to the speed of robotics, they can implement just-in-time order picking and prepare goods for outbound shipping within minutes of a truck’s arrival. This minimizes the space needed for preparing orders and truck turnaround times. All hardware is outfitted with barcode readers, vision systems, laser scanners or other technologies that collect and send sensory data to software in the cyber network.
- The cyber network—the seamless flow of data
In the Industry 4.0 distribution center, all automated equipment and subsystems are integrated with internet-connected systems that can assess and control performance. For instance, Warehouse Control Systems (WCSs) can capture real-time sensory data that users can then leverage to guide the movement of warehouse automation for optimized intralogistics, inventory management and productivity.
With the right combination of automated technology, sensors and advanced control systems, distribution centers can capture data to better understand their processes, run analyses and use the results to improve material flow. They can thus have total control over their products in inventory, and readily accommodate changes to an individual order or demand in the market as a whole.
The future of distribution, available now
All this talk about cyberphysical systems and real-time data flow may sound like a far-off pipe dream. In truth, companies can start taking steps towards bringing their facilities up to par with Industry 4.0 by using a modular approach that gradually scales up technology investments by installing automation in phased implementations.
Many of these technologies can fit into existing operations as “islands of automation.” Warehouses and distribution centers can then introduce more robotics and software over time. A phased approach makes modernization easier to manage, keeps costs low and delivers quick returns on investment, while edging companies closer towards the automated, data-driven distribution center of the future.
Written by: By Derek Rickard, Sales Manager, Cimcorp (http://cimcorp.com/)