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Use the 4.0: Transforming omnichannel operations through innovation

12 February 2018

It may be the phrase flying around the logistics sector recently, but Industry 4.0 isn’t just a buzzword. As the intelligence behind the maximum efficiency of tomorrow’s distribution centres, it would be fair to call it ‘the force’ of the digital age. But how does collecting data today help omnichannel retail warehouses predict what will happen tomorrow?

From steam to AI: a journey through industrial revolutions

In the 18 century the introduction of mechanical production systems using steam and water power gave a massive boost to the industry. Then, at around the start of the 20th century the second industrial revolution saw electricity, assembly lines and mass production increase productivity. The third industrial revolution is associated with the introduction of the computers and automated workplaces in the early 1970s.

Now, the digital trend is continuing to grow, and it is no secret that the fourth industrial revolution is here to transform omnichannel warehouses through innovation. Best described as the eyes, ears and voice of the operation it enables machines to learn complex tasks. Rigid, inflexible logistics are a thing of the past.

In the near future, retail warehouses will be using real-time data and smart robots to monitor conditions and improve operations. Intelligence will be embedded in facilities, with virtual and augmented reality helping to run “what-if” scenarios, predict how the operation will perform during the ever-increasing peak seasons and tour warehouses remotely.

Despite the opportunities, many businesses believe they are a long way from using Industry 4.0 concepts in their operation because they are too busy on day-to-day activities to think about the benefits. “In the next few years we will likely see a change period,” says Head of Sales at Swisslog UK, Shane Faulkner. “People will hopefully move away from this mentality and focus on specific challenges, such as returns handling, before building up to a bigger vision.”

With great power comes great responsibility

For omni channel retail warehouses, the rise in returns has created the need for a new ‘reverse logistics’ process, adding extra pressure to operations. New technology is a big investment, but with any kind of warehouse automation, the biggest risk is over-investing in technology that has the potential of becoming redundant. Implementing a project that promises to improve returns management might result in business growth, but if the system isn’t flexible, it can no longer keep up with the leaps and troughs in demand. That’s why smart robotics are paving the way for a culture-change in warehouse automation.

CarryPick, for example, is a mobile system for efficient storage and order picking. The modular concept of the solution stands out for its returns handling capabilities, as well as its ability to be extended and relocated on very short notice. In combination with Swisslog warehouse management software, SynQ, this kind of technology makes coping with changing demands simple.

“Change is constant, and the retail sector is especially aware of this fact,” Shane continues. “While change is usually neither all good, nor all bad, uncertainty tends to make major players uneasy. It is this that gives them reluctance to consider investing in the future, but uncertainty is exactly why Industry 4.0 should be an important aspect in any kind of operation.”

Swisslog’s SynQ WMS combines connectivity, low-cost sensors, big data and advanced robotics. Its contained services allow retail warehouses to adapt to upcoming changes in the smartest way possible – today and in the future. SynQ provides an array of business intelligence tools in a modular platform, meaning it lets warehouse managers choose the functionality they need, when they need it.

The smart way to automate: turn big data into smart data

The best value from robots are when they are working collaboratively with operators. Collaborative robots, or cobots, work directly side by side human operators to assemble an efficient warehouse operation. In some cases, these robots can learn from the collected data that Industry 4.0 solutions provide, and act based on this data.

“Robots today are seen less as a substitute, and more as a supportive and assisting medium for human workers,” Shane adds. “That’s where cobots come in - robots that work collaboratively with humans.” Swisslog’s AutoPiQ solution is based on this principle. The robot picks the items that it is able to pick, which can be up to 95% of the warehouse’s product range, and a worker finishes the order. AutoPiQ is made up of a smart portable robot cell, ItemPiQ, which sets the base towards artificial intelligence. The intelligent vision system is able to detect unknown items and with four different gripping possibilities, it learns how to handle even fragile products. It is this machine-learning concept that opens up a world of opportunities in logistics. With a human worker involved in the process, tasks such as gift-wrapping can add value to individual orders.

With big data, warehouse managers have a whole new insight into their operation. The Cockpit Manager module in the Swisslog SynQ WMS uses big data to visualize operations in 3D and real-time, providing a complete digital shadow of the warehouse and how it is operating. This can be particularly useful in omnichannel retail operations, where a high degree of quality, cleanliness and reliability is expected by both stores and online customers.

Monitor Conditions to Predict and Prevent Errors

Swisslog Condition Monitoring allows users to view the current state of an intralogistics system at any time and ensures equipment works at maximum efficiency for the longest lifespan. As part of Swisslog’s SynQ service-based modular software platform, Condition Monitoring predicts possible problems, reducing the risk of unscheduled downtime and maximizing delivery reliability. 

“Predictive Maintenance is the next step towards Industry 4.0,” says Shane. “All automation sensors communicate together and learn from each other.”

At the opening ceremony of LogiMAT 2017, Swisslog Condition Monitoring was honoured with the “Best Product” award in the Software, Communication and IT category. Swisslog’s solution concept impressed the high-caliber jury of scientists and trade journalists thanks to its substantial contribution towards streamlining processes, saving costs and increasing productivity in intralogistics.

Embedded Intelligence

SynQ provides the functionality needed to optimize retail warehouse operations. It embeds intelligence and synchronizes the performance of an automated warehouse. With these flexible, self-learning and data driven logistics solutions, omnichannel warehouses can remain efficient even in the face of an increasing number of sporadic peaks.

Swisslog’s Industry 4.0 concept ensures tomorrow’s material handling processes today. Thanks to flexible, adaptive logistics solutions, warehouses can improve efficiency in the face of constantly changing customer requirements. Backed by KUKA, Swisslog is ready to lead retail businesses on the journey to achieving the highest intralogistics performance in a digital age. To find out more, visit www.swisslog.com.

 
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