For most people the term Smart Warehouse would conjure up a system of robot arms, robot pickers, automated pickers and routing systems. As a Northamptonian, I remember well over 20 years ago talk of Howard Smith Paper’s state of the art facility on the Brackmills estate, The warehouse that needed no lighting!
Warehouses for many years have been using automated systems and processes like this. So, what turns a warehouse using automated systems into a Smart Warehouse?
Like many terms in the ‘smart’ / ‘Industry 4.0’ area, there is no single answer to this issue. Smart Warehouse technology can be seen as part of the Industry 4.0 Smart Factory ‘movement, but the successful implementation of Smart Factory systems can often be incremental and sporadic in pace. Perhaps the tipping point to the Smart Warehouse is a system that deploys several or many automated technologies that are crucially interconnected.
Why use Smart Warehouse Technology?
Bottom line for most Smart Warehouse implementations is to increase productivity and efficiency. Other concerns include the reduction of human errors and a decrease in the number of human workers involved. This also supports the effective release of workers for other tasks.
Integration of automated systems into a Smart Warehouse also offers a large amount of real-time operational data for monitoring and managing the warehouse. There’s the opportunity to cross reference and link this data to give yourself a holistic view of your operation. Plus a potential view of your complete supply chain from incoming delivery to customers’ premises.
Smart Warehouse and the Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT technologies can enable the move from an automated warehouse to a ‘smart’ version. Lower cost sensors, with appropriate build standard for the environment in which they are deployed, allows for a wider range of data to be available to you. Whether this is ‘direct’ data related to the Smart Warehouse system or ‘indirect’ data on environment and other parameters that can be used to optimise the system as a whole.
The variety of radio technologies available to allow communication with sensors and deployed equipment in a resilient and robust way increases both ease of deployment and your reach in whatever physical situations you operate in. This includes proprietary working on unlicensed spectrum, or standard based such as Bluetooth, LoRa and 5G.
Smart Warehouse System and Location
The wider deployment of wireless sensors presents an opportunity to track goods within the warehouse. It also presents the opportunity to coordinate the location of mobile automated systems. This includes Automated Inventory Control Platforms, Smart Warehouse Racking, and Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV).
The evolution from robots to ‘Cobots’ (Collaborative Robots) is also being enabled by Industry 4.0 and IoT technologies. This allows you to deploy previously autonomous automated robotic systems to collaborate with the people contributing to the operation. This means these systems do not require a ‘green field’ new installation. In fact, they can be piloted and rolled out at your pace.
Beyond warehousing operations, asset tracking systems using IoT can also give you visibility of goods right to their final destination. For example, sensors can use 5G eSIMs (embedded) and iSIMs (integrated). These seamlessly switch between your Private 5G and the public network to follow goods right to your customer’s premises.
Smart Warehouse Management Systems
The way data is managed and viewed in this variety of automated and IoT systems will differ greatly. Most if not all of these will use a dashboard system to manage and monitor each flow of data. Some of these systems could be hosted on premises but equally they could be cloud-based.
Current Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) are deployed to bring this data into one platform that can be easily accessed both internally across teams and departments. This access can be made available across your supply chain. These systems are likely to be proprietary rather than open and are generally focused on the operational tasks of managing the warehouse.
A Smart Warehouse System allows for a wider range of operational systems to be integrated without the restrictions a homogenous platform would inevitably bring. This allows for a ‘dashboard of dashboards’ approach to system management. A similar approach can be found for those looking to implement a Smart Manufacturing solution.
Additionally, a Smart Warehouse Management System can incorporate systems beyond day-to-day warehouse operations. This gives visibility to wider operational systems and indeed environmental and other data. In fact, it will bring visibility to data sources you already have that are not part of the existing management platform scheme.
This wide-ranging overview driven by real-time data can bring insights not readily available from pure operational management. This will drive efficiency and productivity improvements of the operational and wider warehouse systems. In fact, improving your whole supply chain with oversight for you, your suppliers and your customers.
IoT technologies offer an excellent pathway to move your current, well automated operational into the ‘Smart’ sphere. The breadth and depth of data available allows for more informed decision making. These technologies bring Industry 4.0 practices into the warehouse and blur the lines between Smart Factories and Smart Warehouses. We should probably include Smart Offices and Smart Buildings in this mix as well.
So, whether it’s administration, manufacturing, plant, warehousing or transport, the deployment of IoT will allow for the reuse of many existing systems to deliver new insights and tools for your whole operation.
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