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Industry 4.0: is your warehouse ready?

12 minutes | 15 Nov 2018

Concept image of man using device in warehouse

From RFID scanners to smart management systems, Industry 4.0 introduces a multitude of technologies into the warehouse, transforming it into a smart, adaptive environment

The warehouse is a mini-ecosystem. Its automated and interconnected technologies help to drive the distribution. But, as we enter the brave new digital world of Industry 4.0 (I4.0), the warehouse is evolving to meet the growing pressures applied to it further up the chain. This will be achieved by integrating the digital and the physical – improving productivity in the process.

Here’s what Industry 4.0 looks like in the warehouse:

Connected I4.0 tech

Advanced, connected technologies in warehouses and distribution centres (DCs) aren’t new. However, they have been mainly limited to automated systems. This has resulted in them being kept separate from workers for safety. The promise of I4.0 stands to boost the evolution of DC functionality, paving the way for a more flexible environment and transforming it from cost centre to strategic facility.

The technologies that have converged to create I4.0, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), big data and analytics, augmented reality, wearables, computer vision, low-cost sensors, and robots and cobots and high-level computing, are combining to enhance warehouse automation. The result? DCs are evolving into smart enterprises, an essential component of the integrated supply chain.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

The IoT is at the heart of smart warehousing, ensuring that the various components work together properly. Therefore, robots can communicate with RFID scanners, which can communicate with conveyors, which can communicate with a warehouse management system (WMS). The IoT means all of this happens automatically and seamlessly, without losing any data along the way.

Warehouse employee using hand held device to show connectivity

Voice picking

Voice picking, or voice-directed warehousing, uses speech recognition to direct human operatives. It tells them where to go and how to find the objects they require. Using voice picking rather than scanning barcodes, filling in forms or typing into a computer system, frees up humans from manual work. By enabling them to work more efficiently and quickly, there are improvements in accuracy in replenishment, processing and loading, as well as reducing overall costs.

Vision picking

Vision picking uses augmented reality (AR) technology to overlay graphical images on a human worker’s line of vision. In this way, the view of the physical objects can be significantly enhanced with extra data such as digital information. Although AR and vision picking might be in the relatively early stages of adoption in logistics, the technology has much to offer. This includes allowing users to find objects faster and with more accuracy. It can also reduce the need to separate different types of products and help to identify the precise positioning of any one batch among many. This will significantly impact on warehouse layout.

Augmented reality headware

Mobile AR tools, such as head-mounted display cameras, also offer real-time object recognition, barcode reading, indoor navigation and integration of information with the WMS. They can overlay digital picking lists in the picker’s field of vision via AR-enabled glasses showing the best route for completing a task, reducing travel time. Image recognition software can use automated barcode scanning capabilities to check whether a worker has arrived at the right location and guide him/her to the correct shelf with the right item. The worker can scan the item and register this process simultaneously in the WMS, allowing for stock updates in real time.

Warehouse management system

A warehouse management system (WMS) is the cherry on top of your smart technology cake. It helps to capture, manage and view a range of data across warehouse operations.

Essentra Components has already begun the transition to a fully integrated, connected and digitised Industry 4.0 supply chain network through the use of TW Pick and Pack and warehouse management software. The £150,000 investment was deployed in order to drive efficiency in pick and delivery accuracy, enabling employees to have better access to warehouse activity data and management information. In addition, the company plans to introduce an improved location management system to track stock more accurately and reduce the delta between available and picked product.

Radio-frequency identification tag

Semi-autonomous machines

Sensor detection technology can provide digital information about physical conditions. This allows semi-autonomous machines to adjust their physical movement, and can also be used to provide data that enables predictive maintenance. This can be applied in packaging, so that machines are able to detect changes in product size and shape. In turn, this will automatically notify the control system to reset the packaging configuration to make sure the correct packing box is being used. A smart, automated industrial process like this can reduce the time needed to adjust the machine and put it back into operation manually.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID)

Radio-frequency identification is replacing traditional barcode scanners in maintaining inventory control. Instead of having a paper label, products and packages coming into the warehouse are given a digital tag. Radio waves then transfer the data to or between the digital tags. An automated scanning system records the product’s information.

Supply chain visibility relies on the effective and streamlined implementation of a track and trace (T&T) system. Two years ago, Essentra Components launched the S099 demand planning platform in EMEA and will shortly be launching this system in the Americas. The system comprises an aggregated global demand plan for all vendors, providing transparency across the entire business, improved response to customers and, ultimately, a more efficient and dynamic manufacturing footprint.

I4.0 technologies are allowing warehouses to adapt to the significant changes that are impacting upon their businesses, helping them evolve into a crucial element of the integrated, smart supply chain, improving productivity in the process.