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INTRODUCTION

With the surge in e-commerce, particularly post Covid-19, the push to automate warehouses and distribution centers has increased the complexity of warehouse operations multi-fold.  By combining robotics, automation, artificial intelligence, IoT, augmented reality and machine learning into the warehousing environment, companies are finding new ways to offset long-standing challenges, such as the shrinking labor market, under-utilization of capacity, and deficiencies in data collection technologies to meet the demands of high-velocity e-commerce business models.

TECHNOLOGIES

Warehouse automation encompasses many technologies, some of which are discussed in this paper.

LEARNING WAREHOUSE

The learning warehouse concept is aimed at equipping warehouse IT systems with self-learning mechanisms by applying artificial intelligence.  The warehouse systems learn to recognize patterns, regularities, and interdependencies from unstructured data and adapt, dynamically and independently, to new situations within the entire logistics system. This brings maximum intelligence and efficiency to the entire picking process. [1]

Machine learning improves supply chain as these machines can be designed to pick up patterns.  The devices note defects in the system, which can be improved.  Compared to machines, humans take more time to inspect every product and notice defects.

Machines can also be used for tasks such as preparing packages for shipment and tracking product inventory.  This will reduce wastes and offer better support for labelling, packaging, picking, replenishment, storage and retrieval.  Machine-learned robots can thus run the warehouse, reducing the overhead costs. [2]

Warehouse execution systems (WES) evolved out of a need to manage order-processing in Distribution Centers (DC) and get more out of high-end automation.  When there is a need of rapid decision-making about the work management on the field, the WES logic makes most decisions.  This system understands all the associated parameters and can just automatically release work. It also learns over time through machine learning about the actual performance parameters and redefine its decisions through the learnt knowledge. [3]

Automation has made a big mark in operational areas such as labelling, packaging, picking, replenishment, storage and retrieval. It is anticipated that reporting, a current manual practice, is also likely to be automated in the near future. It is expected that warehouse capacity utilization will be a target for improvement. In terms of upgradation of existing equipments, conveyor and sortation systems, automated guided vehicles, automated storage, palletizing robotics, mobile-collaborative robotics, mobile robotic storage and retrieval systems are the possible areas.  Among data collection technologies, some of those that are expected to be upgraded or implemented are RF terminal technologies, pick- or put-to-light picking technologies, heads-up display/vision technologies and voice-directed picking technologies. In supply chain execution software, Warehouse management system (WMS) is likely to top the list.

The companies in the WES space include Dematic, Honeywell, MHS, Gartner, Intelligrated, Softeon, Korber, KNAPP and Swisslog. Warehouse execution systems (WES) can assume WMS functions too, thereby executing functions ranging from automation control to intelligent routing. The value proposition of WES has expanded, resulting in optimization of flow across all assets and resources, including robots and processes that rely on manual labor.

GAMIFICATION IN THE WAREHOUSE

Gamification incorporates game elements in the work process. It is the next version of metrics and KPI usage for measuring human performance.  Gamification of the warehouse gamifies the picking process, container loading etc.  By implementing the required strategies, this technology can solve problems such as low system adoption, dull system output, and reduced interaction and sharing [4].  It converts the human-robot warehouse interaction into a collaborative game, and by combining human labor and automation, makes the work environment safe and welcoming.

Gamification can improve the following activities in a warehouse:

  • Order picking
  • Inventory counting
  • Order checking (applied to operatives who check the work of warehouse order pickers)
  • Shift management
  • Value-added activities such as e-commerce packaging or labeling
  • Container loading

Gamifying the picking process could mean offering points for the employee who fills the most orders or completes the most assemblies at the respective station. It is up to the discretion of the warehouse as to what tasks are gamified, and there are dashboards and programs to help implement these new tools. Taking it a step further, many believe that gamification of the warehouse will turn the interaction of robots and humans in the warehouse into a collaborative game. The overall goal is to make the warehouse and work environment a safe and welcoming space that intersects human labor with automation. Examples of using gamification in warehouse is presented below:

ProblemSolutionImplementation
Dull outputA. Engage users visually with an intuitive interfacePresent an interface with intuitive loading representation
that is easy for users to use and understand.
Low system adoptionB. Retain user engagement and make system funEnsure the interface is simple and can make loading tasks
fun that can be rewarded with special badges or trophies.
No engaging of staffC. Encourage user learning, improvement and
knowledge sharing
Implement a scoring system to leverage user
competiveness, which makes users want to do better than others at loading tasks.

Provide repeatable tasks, which can be used in conjunction with score feedback, to reinforce learning.
Record the completed user tasks that other users can easily access and learn from.Provide users with a way to interact with results from the loading system in order to allow modifications that result in new solutions.Provide an interface that allows one to quickly and easily check if a particular load layout will fit in a container.

 

Amazon has turned warehouse tasks into video games to make work ‘fun’. It has installed screens next to worker stations. The games are intended not only to make work less tedious, but also to encourage higher productivity by pitting workers against one another in the virtual game world. The video games are optional for the “pickers” and “stowers” across the warehouse site. [5] [6]. One major drawback in the use of gamification as competition is that such activity is enjoyable for only a short time.  When workers start underperforming against their colleagues, it becomes less fun and can actually be counterproductive.

WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION USING 5G

Technology has enabled connecting devices that sense environments and interact with one another, resulting in decentralized decisions. 5G could solve many signaling problems that exist in 4G, Wi-Fi and other networks that have typically served warehouses.  It could provide ubiquitous coverage for a large warehouse rather than dealing with seven different short-range wireless standards. It can cover a very large warehouse area with one single wireless access medium, which is secure and is capable of handling all the privacy issues.

5G will also help close the gap on disparate systems to create a real-time supply chain with complete visibility from manufacturing to store shelves. [7]

Some of the benefits include:

  • A significant cost cut. IoT installations on 5G will be faster, simpler, and easier, minimizing the need for hardwiring.
  • Central network control. The power of 5G can support next-level system design, allowing warehouses to create a precise, fast, and simple network operating from a single control point.
  • Enhance AR and video analytics. Real-time, complete video capture of the supply chain could become a reality, with instant processing for a live feed to improve efficiency and optimize timing.
  • From data transfer to monitoring capabilities, 5G eliminates extra steps for a more precise operation than we’ve ever experienced.
  • Faster, safer robotics. The ease and capability of 5G networks will allow mobile robots to operate at vastly improved capacities. [8]

BIG DATA ANALYTICS

Data analytics provide solutions that increase equipment life cycles, accelerate product movement, optimize inventory management (through better predictive models) and increase warehouse safety [9].

One prime example is the use of barcode scanners on a product moving through a warehouse.  Each step of the process from picking to shipment is scanned, and operators can see where the time is being lost or what is holding up the system.  Big data analytics solutions can highlight valuable information from daily operations, helping warehouse management make data-driven decisions that improve overall performance [10].

INTERNET OF THINGS (IoT)

RFID technology is leveraging IoT capabilities in warehouse automation.  Using IoT, everything in the warehouse is traceable and coordinated to achieve maximum operation performance. [11]

IoT is also revolutionizing the world of warehousing through wireless fleet management (also called forklift telematics). Sensors are used to accurately track every truck in the fleet in real time through an online portal.  Forklift telematics system uses cloud and intelligent management to perform tasks such as vehicle management, speed management, collision avoidance management, impact management and weighing management.

STARTUPS

There are many startups working in Warehouse automation segment, some of which have been presented below.

Located in Westlake Village, California, inVia Robotics provides next-generation robotic warehouse automation solutions for e-commerce distribution centers and supply chains.

Specializes in creating material handling systems using collaborative mobile autonomous robots. NextShift Robotics focuses on meeting the demands of the exploding e-commerce order fulfillment market.  Located in Lowell, MA, it specializes in ecommerce order fulfillment, robotics, robotics software, warehouse automation, logistics, autonomous robots, materials handling and, supply chain.

A robotics company providing automation solutions based on industry 4.0 technologies, Addverb Technologies is located in India and specializes in Warehouse Automation, Consultancy, Robotics, Software (WMS/WCS/MES) IOT and, Industrial IoT.

Founded in 2016, Atlanta-based Bullet Scanning has been developing one-of-a-kind solutions for data capture and warehouse automation through novel approaches to computer vision and image analysis.

Working on a Full Stack Warehouse Automation – AI-driven robotics platform, Rightbot, was founded in 2020 in India.

A cost-effective Indian warehouse automation company, Flexli, provides conveyor product lines such as Belt Conveyors Roller Conveyors, and Pick to Light and Linear Sorters.

US robotics and AI startup Covariant’s yellow robot accurately picks items out of crates. The robot uses suction cups, sees through a six-lens camera array, and learns via machine-learning algorithms, enabling the machine to pick and pack items with incredible precision. As it learns, the robot’s neural network simultaneously teaches its robot colleagues around the world. [12]

ADVANCEMENTS AMONG MAJOR COMPANIES

Advances are being made by major companies, some of which have been presented below :

Amazon is tight-lipped about its plans, but the array of initiatives launched so far hint at the scale of the company’s ambition to thrive in a world turned upside down. [13]

Picavi, a Germany based company, is working on Pick-by-Vision Technology. It is transforming Warehouse Automation with 5G [7].

DHL launched a new “plug & play” robotics platform in collaboration with Microsoft and leading artificial intelligence (AI)-driven digital fulfilment provider Blue Yonder. [14]

A South Korean Telecom firm, KT introduced warehouse automation service. It is using 5G networks and self-driving vehicles. It IS continuing to develop related technologies, especially as the importance of supply chain is expected to grow further after the coronavirus pandemic. [15]

Fetch Robotics, a cloud robotics and on-demand Automation Company headquartered in California, announced a new drag-and-drop development toolkit. The toolkit allows customers to implement flexible automation in existing warehouse facilities. [16]

COLLABORATIONS

Multiple collaborations and technology sharing deals have been made in this segment to get an early impact in the market.  A few of the collaborations are presented below:

Packsize and 6 River systems are working on next-generation warehouse automation technology in packaging. Their accelerated warehouse automation is powered by a robot called “Chuck”. By integrating directly into a company’s warehouse management system, right-sized cartons can be created and paired with Chuck to help operators minimize walking while ensuring a sustainable box for every order. The collaboration can make labor more efficient and reduce material and shipping-related costs, all while optimizing fulfillment in a small footprint. [17]

Partnership between UST Global and GreyOrange is aimed at creating Intelligent Robotics for Warehouse and Supply Chain Automation. The focus is on improving material-handling efficiency inside the distribution center, which is a key issue faced by the supply chain teams, especially in retail companies. [18]

UPS and DHL are making major investments in their logistics networks to strengthen their material handling and delivery capabilities.  UPS will bring substantial processing capacity online globally at 20 new or remodeled, highly automated, data-driven facilities in 2020. [19]

Walmart recently partnered with US based robotics company Nuro to launch autonomous delivery robots to add to their existing delivery options.

INTERESTING PATENTS

LEARNING WAREHOUSE

US10713587B2 from Xerox Corporation, titled Method and system using machine learning techniques for checking data integrity in a data warehouse feed, deals with

  • Extract-Transform-Load (ETL) system used for performing automated data quality checks on data warehouse (DWH).
  • Identifying suspicious data and correcting the same
  • Enabling automatic checks to be performed to a certain degree without any training set.
  • Higher level of coverage after labeling has been performed by a human expert.
  • Bridging the gap between fully automatic anomaly detection methods that are too shallow, and human deep monitoring methods that are inapplicable as they are too time consuming.

US10427872B2, titled Automatic warehouse control system and method from Shenzhen Whalehouse Technology deals with

  • Warehouse system management for controlling an automatic warehouse.
  • An automatic warehouse control system that is low cost and easy to manage.

GAMIFICATION IN THE WAREHOUSE

US20190256290A1 from River systems, LLC (Parent Company: Shopify), titled Warehouse automation systems and methods deals with

  • Multiple enhanced carts for transporting products within the warehouse and a controller.
  • Enhanced carts to improve upon current warehouse systems, as the enhanced carts have several features that improve user or associate productivity.
  • Features that can be customized to each associate and/or give rise to gamification.
  • The enhanced carts may include features that will ease the process of adopting to new technology.
  • Improvements over traditional carts to decrease the time the associate spends, for example, restocking, picking, counting, sorting, moving, and packing product into customer orders and shipments

US20190217478A1 from Locus Robotics Corp., titled Robot gamification for improvement of operator performance, deals with robot gamification for improvement of operator performance. The method involves parking a robot at a pose location within a navigational space, while identifying an operator located within a zone proximate to the robot for acquiring an item to be picked by a sensor in electronic communication with an interactive display device. The operator performance data is received at the interactive display device associated with acquiring of the item. The graphic representation of operator achievement is rendered on the interactive display device in response to the received operator performance data within a gamified performance tracking environment.

WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION USING 5G

CN111866473A, titled Warehouse monitoring system based on 5G and having alarm function deals with a system that increases the operation process efficiency, improves the overall performance of the system flow, realizes warehouse monitoring operation when shooting with double backup function, prevents both data from being lost and unknown people entering by generating alarms and reduces the loss rate of goods in the warehouse.

BIG DATA ANALYTICS

CN111930799A from Jiangsu Boerdai Network Technology Co. Ltd., titled Shared cloud warehouse platform system based on big data and use method deals with big data based shared cloud warehouse platform system.  It comprises a supporting platform, a big data module and RFID equipment.

The RFID device is connected to the supporting platform, the big data module is set on the support platform and includes

Data source layer: Realize the collection of front-end sensing equipment and various supporting platform data;

Big data acquisition layer: Implement structured data, unstructured data, Import and export of semi-structured data; Big data processing layer: Realize distributed storage and parallel computing of data, and provide services uniformly; and Big data application layer: Realize smart applications.

INTERNET OF THINGS (IoT)

US10259649B2 from Bionichive Ltd, titled Automatic warehouse system deals with automated systems for warehouse management, used for picking and placing boxes on shelves in a warehouse comprising of

  • Set of autonomous mobile robots;
  • Network of vertical and horizontal rails that are parallel to the vertical support posts and horizontal shelves of the shelving system in the warehouse; and
  • Real Time Traffic Management (RTTM) server, which is a central processing server configured to communicate with the robots and other processors and servers in the warehouse.

Processors in the robots, RTTM, and picking stations comprising software are configured to provide the following advanced capabilities: a. realization of Internet of Things (IoT) scenarios; b. self-learning; and c. accumulating and analyzing big data sets.

CONCLUSION

With warehouse digitalization becoming a reality, the future of warehouses will be much different from what exists today. 5G, IoT and Big data etc. will continue to dominate right from factory floor to retail shelves.  Innovative technologies such as gamification and self-learning will become a norm in the automated warehouse. Continuous improvements in this domain are inevitable, and smart warehouses will most certainly take the industry by storm within the next few years.

REFERENCES.

[1.] The learning warehouse – the next quantum leap thanks to artificial intelligence, swisslog

https://www.swisslog.com/en-sg/industry-40/artificial-intelligence-ai-machine-learning-warehouse

[2.] Online Robotics Trade Magazine Industrial Automation, Robots and Unmanned Vehicles

https://www.roboticstomorrow.com/article/2020/04/6-ways-machine-learning-is-revolutionizing-the-warehouse/15120

[3.] WES: It’s for warehouse automation and more Warehouse execution

https://www.softeon.com/content/wes-it%E2%80%99s-warehouse-automation-and-more

[4.] Applying Gamification Principles to a Container Loading System in a Warehouse Environment

https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/7796689

[5.] Amazon turns warehouse tasks into video games to make work ‘fun’

https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/22/18635272/amazon-warehouse-working-conditions-gamification-video-games

[6.] ‘MissionRacer’: How Amazon turned the tedium of warehouse work into a game

https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/05/21/missionracer-how-amazon-turned-tedium-warehouse-work-into-game/

[7.] 5G and Pick-by-Vision during COVID-19

https://picavi.com/en/5g-and-pick-by-vision-during-covid-19/

[8.] Is 5G the Tool Warehouses Have Been Waiting For?

https://www.thomasnet.com/insights/is-5g-the-tool-warehouses-have-been-waiting-for/

[9.]https://www.deccanchronicle.com/technology/in-other-news/241218/big-data-the-driving-force-for-logistics-automation.html

[10.] https://www.nitco-lift.com/blog/warehouse-automation-trends/

[11.] 10 Trends in Warehouse Automation & Management in 2020

https://www.nitco-lift.com/blog/warehouse-automation-trends/

[12.] Self-learning warehouse robots are changing the face of modern logistics

https://www.richardvanhooijdonk.com/blog/en/emerging-technologies-shaping-the-future-of-logistics/

[13.] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-05-18/amazon-wants-to-innovate-its-way-out-of-the-pandemic

[14.] DHL LAUNCHES WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION SERVICE

https://www.manufacturingmanagement.co.uk/news/dhl-launches-warehouse-automation-service

[15.] KT introduces warehouse automation service

http://www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20200524000233

[16.] AMRs vs. AGVs: The Difference between a Robot and a Guided Vehicle, fetch robotics

https://fetchrobotics.com/fetch-robotics-blog/amrs-vs-agvs-whats-the-difference/

[17.] Packsize and 6 River Systems Collaborate on Next-generation Warehouse Automation Technology

https://www.mmh.com/article/packsize_and_6_river_systems_collaborate_on_next_generation_warehouse_autom

[18.] UST Global Announces Partnership With GreyOrange in Intelligent Robotics for Warehouse and Supply Chain Automation

https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/ust-global-announces-partnership-with-greyorange-in-intelligent-robotics-for-warehouse-and-supply-chain-automation-300997567.html

[19.] UPS, DHL Invest Millions in Warehouse Automation

https://sourcingjournal.com/topics/logistics/ups-dhl-automation-warehouse-delivery-material-handling-192480/

Disclaimer:

  • This document has been created for educational and instructional purposes only
  • Copyrighted materials used have been specifically acknowledged
  • We claim the right of fair use as ascertained by the author

AUTHOR

Mr. Feroz Desai
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