Remember the ‘Amazon Go’ store? where everything is automated from the moment you enter, and the moment you leave the store with your stuff without any human interaction.
That’s the power of IoT. How can it apply to the warehouses? Let’s consider Amazon again. As we know, Amazon is the largest eCommerce marketplace and has an average of 36 million orders per day to be delivered within a day. So many-a-times, it stores the orders in its warehouses, and all that in a day is beyond human capabilities in a place that fits 10 football courts.
To simplify it and automate the tedious tasks, Amazon has an IoT-driven warehouse management system that uses sensors and robots and automates tasks such as stocking, picking, packaging, managing, optimizing space, real-time inventory tracking, predictive analytics, and more.
With IoT, 36 million or it’s double or triple can be easily managed in a day. It can drive all the challenges of the industry utilizing it. Let’s see what it has for warehouse management.
Challenges of Warehouse Management
As a warehouse manager, you always have this thought – how can I improve warehouse efficiency? To get a clear notion of the solution you require, you first need to address the challenges you’re facing in warehouse management.
- Usually, it starts with, “Where is my inventory?”
Sometimes, the inventory is on another shelf than the usual one and you can’t find it at the time of delivery, or the shipment to be delivered is not on time. You are unaware of your shipment location and the only means is to get on a call with the driver, who keeps saying, “I will be there soon!” Also, you don’t know the condition of your shipment. And what if the inventory gets lost or stolen, like the cargo shipments that face more than $30 billion loss every year.
- “How do I know what inventory comes in and what goes out?”
Are you able to manage and forecast the product demand? You have that inventory management software where you enter the inventory details but knowing the exact count of inventory in real-time is not possible. This is because you can’t keep adding the details every second an inventory comes in the warehouse or leaves. Besides, you don’t even know which products are in demand, except those monthly reports that tell you what was sold more this month.
- “Is the warehouse space-optimized properly to minimize the time?”
So you have a huge inventory but unoptimized storage systems and palette patterns. The quantity of the space necessary to store keeps increasing along with the time required by order pickers to search for an inventory in the warehouse. Delays and more delays!
- “Is the equipment working properly?”
The equipment, for example, the forklift breaks down increasing the downtime. There’s a delay in operations. Moreover, the products stored are in improper condition. For example, perishable food items need to be stored at a specific temperature but unfortunately, an improper condition damages the product and it happens more frequently.
These challenges can be overcome by an IoT-driven warehouse management system that automates the entire warehouse operations.
Role of IoT in Warehouses
Managers have to deal with the warehouse challenges and thus to improve efficiency, they involve IoE (Internet-of-everything). It uses sensors and robots that take numerous measurements, collects data from different data points, and uses analytical tools to provide effective, productive, and efficient ways of running the business. Here are some of the roles of IoT in warehouses:
- Asset Tracking
IoT-enabled warehouses help businesses with real-time product location, transportation details, packaging, and shipping. Due to instant updates, you can ensure that no asset is lost in transportation. All these apply to human assets too. You can track the location of the staff in real-time and thus manage the deliverables responsibly.
Smart warehouse devices such as sensors on shelves and assets help you locate and manage your inventory. The instant notifications and alerts when the asset is out-of-stock or temperature conditions are affecting the asset allows you to take preventive measures and reduce downtime. IoT devices also make it easier for you to deliver or return a shipment as you have exact details of the asset – location, condition, and more.
Using IoT in warehouses ensures that failure rates are low. By pre-determining the condition of the asset, equipment, a predictive maintenance system helps warehouse managers avoid failures and reduce downtime. By detecting the asset condition, collecting data from various sources such as vehicles, shipping conveyances, assets, you can reduce counterfeiting, theft, spoilage, or any other kind of accidents.
With detailed data analytics, IoT in warehouse management can help you make profit-oriented future business plans. It tracks every action, processes all data even if it’s about a specific product demanded more at a specific location. You can predict what is in demand and what’s not working and eventually plan your inventory. It will help you optimize your warehouse space and minimize the time required for locating and picking.
- Workflow Automation
In the warehouse, IoT is also known as IoE (internet-of-things) because it automates every single task, especially those tedious ones – stocking, picking, packaging, loading, and unloading, etc. Moreover, if allowed, IoT can also automate the entire work process like auto-ordering when the product is out-of-stock, notifying the maintenance engineer about a scheduled equipment maintenance check, and it’s a never-ending list.
How Does IoT Apply in Warehouses
Wondering how you can utilize the power of IoT in your warehouses?
It’s simple! Think of the use cases and the technologies that drive smart warehouses automation.
Use-Cases of IoT-Enabled Warehouses
- Assets and Inventory
From the asset’s arrival to the warehouse and its delivery to the customer, IoT inventory tracking collects every bit of data such as status update, location, notifications, and all the other relevant information.
- Wearable Devices
Using connected devices, warehouse staff can identify products and packages instantly. Wearables such as smartwatches will track staff’s product picking accuracy in order to track their performance. Besides, the heartbeat and vitals monitoring feature will help ensure that the staff is not exhausted.
- Warehouse Robotics
IoT, along with warehouse robotics helps automate monotonous tasks like picking, packing, stocking, managing, etc. and reduces the chances of human error – order inaccuracy, inventory damage.
- Vision Picking
Smart glasses* help in picking items and transporting them around the warehouse. The GPS tracker in the glasses helps in auto locating the shelf and the products. The staff doesn’t need to memorize the warehouse blueprint or go on a manual hunt to pick the products. Moreover, it can automatically manage the inventory without any documentation. It can also run quick scans of the barcode stickers on it for inventory purposes.
*The glasses work like the ones in virtual reality games where GPS location helps us in navigation, and show details about the presence of elements in the game.
- Data Analytics
AI can analyze and process the collected data into valuable insights. For example, IoT can collect the forklift’s data and inform the warehouse manager in case of failure. These valuable insights can further help in taking informed future decisions.
Technologies driving Smart Warehouse Automation
As GPS doesn’t work well indoors, many companies use different technologies such as RFID tags, beacons based on Bluetooth Low Energy, infrared, or ultrasonic positioning, etc. Here are the most common and widely used technologies that make processing smart.
As RFID tags can store more data than barcodes, companies use it to store and collect asset information – size, manufacturer, expiration date, serial number, production line, and so on. Using an RFID reader that can scan 200 tags at once, data can be retrieved.
Beacons are nothing but the transmitters that are installed on a tracked object. They then broadcast a radio signal to transmit the data to the IoT platform. Beacons/BLE bracelets can be equipped with additional sensors like accelerometer or temperature for tracking sensitive objects.
Blockchain technology provides real-time insights about the product. It also helps managers detect theft and manage inventory proactively.
Benefits of IoT Warehouse Management
By now we’ve learned about IoT and how it drives warehouse operations, however, if you’re still skeptical about embracing this technology, here are the reasons to implement it in the warehouse.
- Real-time Tracking
IoT warehouse management gives real-time asset details such as location, transportation, condition, packaging, and routing. The instant updates and continuous tracking ensures that no inventory is lost or damaged. It also helps in managing inventory.
- Enhanced Visibility
IoT devices collect real-time data of the assets that you can further share with customers to provide transparency.
- Improved Inventory Management
Smart shelves, containers, pallets will help in locating and managing the warehouse inventory. If a product is out-of-stock or conditions are affecting the quality of goods, instant alerts and notifications will be sent to the managers. It also helps in planning the inventory based on product demand.
- Reduces Risk
IoT devices help businesses reduce risks, downtime, and avoid accidents by monitoring conditions and using predictive maintenance to detect early signs of equipment malfunctions.
- Reduced Costs
As everything is planned and optimized, smart warehouses have less to no chance of wasting resources, thereby, increasing profits and reducing management costs.
- Increased scalability
By optimizing the warehouse, you can utilize the storage space and scale it according to your needs.
- Improves Forecasting Accuracy
IoT-based warehouse management can collect and process inventory data into valuable insights that can help in forecasting workload increase or decrease, product demand, inventory management, adjusting storage space, etc.
- Higher Employee Productivity
IoT warehouse management systems provide instant, on-demand assistance to the staff that helps them complete a higher number of tasks per day. Wearables help them in navigating the warehouse, identifying the right packages, and prioritizing tasks.
IoT-enabled Warehouses Technological Trends
Along with IoT, there are many prominent technologies used for smart warehousing. Let’s have a look at the most trending ones.
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR)
AMR is an IoT technology used to move or handle products within the warehouse. The robots can freely move in the warehouse using the navigation sensors and cameras unlike Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) that operate on a fixed path. The sensors help them execute a planned movement based on the environment, position, and other factors in the path. The use of AMRs in smart warehouses is critical. They’re replacing forklifts, pulling 1000 kg payloads around a factory. In addition, the sensors on AMRs track data and provide managers with feedback about the products and the AMR.
- Smart Glasses
Source: DC Velocity
Smart glasses help warehouse managers and staff to view visual displays of order picking instructions, or information about the asset – location. Using it, managers can also decide where to place a certain product. (It’s an AR technology which presents every detail right in front of you.) Overall, it enhances picking performance and accuracy, reduces onboarding and training time.
Source: Supply Chain Institute
Moving and picking the item manually in the warehouse is challenging and highly unproductive. Besides, picking products from high shelves increases the risk of workplace injuries. Drones, on the other hand, can help in warehouse management by picking products from high shelves, tracking, and guiding in location.
Also Read: Benefits of Drone Delivery
Examples of Smart Warehouse Management
Companies are implementing IoT solutions in warehouses to accomplish improvements – from reduced forklift damage to increased productivity. Here are the top players with smart warehouses.
- Amazon Warehouse Automation
Amazon has a semi-automated warehouse where 200,000 robots work alongside human staff. The robots perform the basic tasks of moving packages or scanning barcodes. However, “the end-to-end automated warehouse is at least 10 years away”, says Scott Anderson, the company’s director of Robotics fulfillment.
- DHL Smart Warehouse
DHL has a complete set of innovations at its warehouse. The company employs smart glasses, robots, drones, autonomous vehicles to automate warehouse operations. DHL has been working with Cisco to bring IoT to its three major warehouse operations in Europe and recently is testing the technology at three pilot sites in Germany, Netherlands, and Poland.
- Alibaba Warehouse Automation
Alibaba, in 2018, launched a fully robotic warehouse with over 100 AGVs and 700 guided robots to transport parcels across the warehouse and deliver goods to delivery trucks and customers. Each mobile robot is equipped with sensors to avoid a collision. Since the smart warehouse began operations, the company claims the efficiency among workers has increased three-fold, and on the business side, it has helped save time, money, and failures.
- Ocado Smart Warehouse
Ocado is an online-only grocery store that uses bots to automate basic tasks like moving goods and lifting them. As space optimization is the priority, having an algorithm that can lift boxes higher than a human is Ocado’s priority. It has a system that can manage inventory processes over 60,000 orders per week and is active 24/7.
Lids, a fashion apparel company in Indianapolis started using an IoE based robotic system to simplify the warehouse operations. Previously, order takers would take the list of products and search for it in the warehouse manually. Now, a list is sent to cart-like robots who then retrieve the products, place them in bins, and deliver it to workers. Sensors equipped on robots track the robots’ location and transmits the data to the remote monitoring team. “Anything that’s moving in the warehouse, the system knows where it is”, says Bill Leber, director of Business Development at Swisslog.
The Bottom Line is…
Productivity! IoE systems in the warehouse make operations smooth by increasing the product picking, finding, and packaging speed. Automation reduces failure and downtime, thereby, enhancing productivity and warehouse security.
IoT is that one-person army that you wish to have for your warehouse, and we can be that one tech scientist to help you build your army.
To know more about us or IoT Warehouse Management, contact us!