By Knud Kegel, VP Product at EMnify

There’s no doubt that the supply chain was hit hard during the height of the coronavirus pandemic. From unexpected peaks in demand, to significant demand drop off, supply bottlenecks and component shortages, manufacturing industries experienced it all. And those businesses that used smart warehousing and IoT-based connectivity technologies prior to the outbreak had a clear advantage over those that didn’t.

Like other forms of business automation, smart warehousing improves productivity and saves costs. It paves the way for new, more efficient, semi-autonomous business models, where connectivity and the IoT can be used to streamline and optimize existing warehouse processes. In the smart warehouse, intelligent IT systems take control of the process flow. They rely on IoT connectivity to ensure all points in the ecosystem – the sensors, gateways, routers, applications and platforms – are operating as a cohesive whole.

To keep up with the demands of efficient logistics, companies are increasingly relying on digital networking across the entire supply chain. Here’s how three IoT-based technologies are being used effectively in smart warehousing today.

1. Autonomous sorting robots

Autonomous sorting robots move independently, using sensors and cameras to navigate. They have adjustable storage compartments and code readers to classify the packages and place them in the corresponding output line, transferring parcels to the shipping area. These autonomous robots can also be utilised on a mezzanine, accessing entry channels and navigating multiple levels through to exit ramps, moving goods straight to the shipping area.

Through IoT connectivity, autonomous robots become collaborative, communicating with and sensing other robots and endpoints. This allows them to interact safely with the environment, humans and other things. For example, an autonomous robot can differentiate between a shelf, which is a permanent obstacle, and a transport trolley, which is a temporary passing obstacle, and act accordingly.

The main advantages of autonomous sorting robots in smart warehousing are that they are flexible, quick to implement and highly accurate when undertaking tasks. In terms of flexibility and quick implementation, the robot is able to use artificial intelligence and machine learning to make decisions, therefore adapting to situational changes based on information in its environment.

In terms of accuracy, advances in navigation technology, sensor technology and image processing have allowed for much safer use of autonomous robots, with heightened dexterity and more control when performing tasks.

As mentioned, autonomous robots need to be integrated into other systems throughout the warehouse ecosystem. This is where 5G or 5G IoT technology comes into its own. Warehouse and technology personnel can tap into data, improving robot operations and harnessing an additional data source to interrogate logistics processes taking place across the warehouse.

2. Image recognition for smart warehousing

If your business isn’t yet ready to integrate autonomous robot technology into a smart warehouse ecosystem, there are other ways to ready your business for the future. A great place to start is image recognition. Implementing an image recognition system supports your employees by recognising components and responding or guiding employee actions. Systems provide a display screen where operatives can see which component they need to take from which compartment and in which order.

When implemented as part of a connected IoT deployment, this visual, positive feedback for the proper completion of tasks ensures operatives stay switched on and working to their full capabilities. If an error were to occur, the system would immediately notify the employee and advise on how to carry out the task correctly.

This can be a valuable backup system, as team members may begin to lose concentration towards the end of a heavy shift, making errors that lead to incorrect consignments and subsequent customer complaints. Using image recognition and intelligent software solutions, manufacturers and logistics companies are able to increase product and processing quality.

In addition, image recognition on production lines allows for comprehensive visual documentation of the work carried out. If there are errors in production, the process can be reviewed in detail and a mistake by the logistics company can be ruled out without any doubt. And from an employee perspective, it’s a more relaxed, streamlined and straightforward experience.

3. Driverless transport systems in smart warehousing

Driverless transport systems (DTS) are distinctly different to autonomous sorting robots. DTS are used today to make the flow of raw materials more flexible and efficient, and to bridge longer distances.

In practice, the load capacity of a single driverless transport vehicle can range from three to 50kg. Speeds are typically around two to three miles per hour in environments with passenger traffic, yet higher speeds can be achieved in fully automated areas.

Easily integrated into existing environments, whether warehouse structures, conveyor systems or connecting private traffic systems, DTS delivers the most flexibility when compared with other automated transport systems. They are suitable for the transportation of a wide range of different loads, and entire conveyor systems can be completely relocated during operation.

A DTS also offers some major advantages in operational processes, where fluctuating demand may occur. Unlike a human team member, a driverless transport vehicle does not take breaks and is always ready for use, thus ensuring continuous supply when needed. Particularly in the areas of logistics and production, the switch to DTS can significantly increase productivity.

The differences between self-guided vehicles and mobile robots

While there may appear to be some overlap between self-guided vehicles and mobile robots, the main difference is that self-guided vehicles are an automatic system and mobile robots are autonomous.

While a DTS moves along a predefined route, navigating by laser or wire control, autonomous robots constantly evaluate their surroundings, adapting their route using artificial intelligence. Both systems make use of connectivity and the IoT, yet autonomous mobile robots use connectivity to interrogate their surroundings on a deeper level.

The difference in load-bearing capacity of the two systems is also an important factor. Autonomous mobile robots normally work with boxes or light packages, whereas DTS tend to be used for pallets. You need to weigh up your needs and make the decision that’s right for your business.

Putting it all together

The options above all deliver advantages to a manufacturing facility, and need to be built around a robust and reliable digital network. Yet smart warehousing isn’t just about automation. It’s about the collaboration between machines and humans. And the IoT allows for this. A wide range of moving parts, raw materials, WIPs, products, devices and team members, can all be connected together and managed in one network. As a result, a lot rides on that network, its coverage and its connectivity type. That’s why cellular IoT connectivity should be on your list of must-have IoT components.