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Flexibility and intelligence

12 September 2017

Swisslog recently released its cutting edge new warehouse management software SynQ, so HSS editor Simon Duddy caught up with the automation specialist’s VP of software and controls development Tim Eick to get under the skin of the innovative application.

SynQ – short for Synchronised Intelligence – is the next generation of Swisslog's WMS platform, WM 6. The software aims to help end users get the most out of automation and Swisslog has worked with KUKA Robotics, which merged with Swisslog in 2014, in its development.

As such, SynQ is broader than WM6 and has allowed Swisslog to move more into production logistics and last mile rather than simply pure WMS.

In addition, Swisslog sees the collaborative technology developed with KUKA as helping make automation more flexible for end users.

Swisslog VP of software and controls development Tim Eick explains: "Robots have been a part of operations for quite a long time, but typically they are compartmentalised into cells for pallet building, for example, with very simple interfaces.

"Swisslog’s merger with KUKA opens many doors for what robots can do in the logistics environment, including mobile robots and HMI (human machine interface) where robots and workers can work safely together."

R&D teams from KUKA and Swisslog are working together and are 100% transparent on data. KUKA is very strong on robot vision and perception and Swisslog is strong on warehouse workflows. With the barriers gone, Swisslog has access to the core code of KUKA’s robot controller, for example, and the way is clear to create a cohesive supply chain solution from production to warehouse.

One combined application could be mobile robots carrying out a cycle count with a visual on the racking.

Tim adds: "Robot collaboration opens up a lot. We are focused on automation and how it can work with manual processes. HMI can be infinitely more flexible than traditional automation, especially as we get more capability into robots. Mobile robots have the ability to change warehouse processes."

Swisslog also aims to help companies spot trends and anticipate variations in workflow, although he acknowledged there are limits to what can be achieved.

"We have to be careful," says Tim. "We build mathematical models of warehouse environments based on historical data. That said, we have Event Manager as part of SynQ which is configured at the customer level to look for patterns, and can be used to trigger actions, for example, turn speed up, change to cross dock mode, but we don’t have a crystal ball yet."

To improve this, systems need more data and more deterministic and consistent machines, as well as smarter software.

"There is a learning curve, and you need to make sure you are on top of the variables," adds Tim. "For example, where does a stacker cranes park after a movement? If this changes, you need to adjust calculations."

Increased use of the Internet of Things (IoT) should allow automated systems to harvest more data and more up-to-date information.

SynQ is optimised with IoT in mind, and can plug into KUKA's IoT platform – KUKA Connect. Over time Swisslog will develop APIs and extract more data from robots and other machines in the system. This will help with condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.

Tim explains: "Third party integration is important here and we’ve developed this by using open protocols as well as functional integration tools.

"Ideally, kit should be IoT enabled for us to get the most out of them. With smart machines exchanging data in real time, SynQ can help them to optimise themselves. Performance can be monitored and adjusted to minimise energy use, travel time and stress on the drives."

Sync also features Availability Manager, which helps the warehouse manager to keep automated systems working well and keep budgets under control.

"The operation as a whole needs to be 100% up at peak, yes, but if you look at the system as a whole, perhaps not every part needs to be 100%, perhaps 90% is okay for some parts. If there are three similar stations on the intralogistics process, and products can take another route dynamically if one asset is down, then 100% may not be crucial. The monitoring software can measure usage of paths over time and you can make sure maintenance is costed sensibly."

SynQ is an innovative software bringing the warehouse and production enviornments closer together; and is well positioned to take advantage of IoT-enabled machines.

Global IP cache

Swisslog has a global workflow library of all of its projects and how they adapt over time. The company built a glossary, standardised descriptions, and translated between languages. The library is managed centrally and used to generate specifications for proposals. It allows customers to validate their approach, which is especially important for the Pharmaceutical industry. The library assists Swisslog in its aim of helping customers achieve predictable results.