Smart Digital Material Handling Solutions

Concentrate on AR and VR, Better Interaction with Digital Devices

Debra Schug, Contributing Writer

This past spring at the premier supply chain show ProMat 2019 in Chicago at McCormick Place, a significant focus was on showcasing intelligent manufacturing solutions for material handling and warehousing. A new piece of technology either using augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) or robotics was in almost every aisle. For instance, on display at the Raymond booth was the Raymond Virtual Reality Simulator, which is used to train new and existing lift truck operators.

The plethora of digital technologies and innovations abounding at ProMat this year makes a clear point that the material handling world is changing fast. According to the new survey, entitled “MHI 2019 Annual Industry Report–Elevating Supply Chain Digital Consciousness,” eight out 10 respondents believe the digital supply chain will become the predominant model in the next five years. The report, which surveyed one thousand supply chain leaders, also found a 95% increase in projected spending from industry companies this year.

The explosion of e-commerce and changing expectations from customers everywhere is putting a lot of pressure on both manufacturers and distribution centers to increase throughput and efficiencies. This has driven companies to find a competitive edge, wherever possible, and employ new tools and technologies to keep up with the industry’s evolving needs.

Achieving Flexible Automation Through New Technologies

Automation is the usual solution to increasing throughput and efficiencies. However, one of the common drawbacks of automation identified was its rigidness. Once a piece of automated equipment was installed, it became fixed in place and couldn’t easily be changed or moved. Plus, automation has been a very expensive option, and for some, the price tag was out of reach.

A new crop of “flexible automation” solutions are popping up, using new technology like AR. One example was presented in a ProMat seminar presented by LogistiVIEW, which discussed how AR can be used to assist workers filling orders in a distribution center. Workers wearing industrial smart glasses, such as Google Glass, can see a series of lights and hear voice instructions directing them on which items to pick.

“AR turns your workforce into a tool,” said Seth Patin, Founder and CEO of LogistiVIEW. “The technology connects a worker to everything around them in the workplace.”

He said warehouses and distribution centers can achieve flexible automation by using AR in this way, because it increases throughput and decreases inventory touches, but also allows for changes to be easily made.

“It’s automation that’s flexible, adaptive and responsive,” he said.

Rugged Computers, Mobile Devices and Tablets 

In order to meet customers’ exceedingly high delivery time expectations, the industry is undergoing tremendous pressure to fulfill orders as fast as possible. That means many operations are doing away with manual inventory management methods and adopting digital solutions, such as mobile devices and tablets.

“In today’s ‘need-it-now’ e-commerce marketplace, companies need to improve their timelines/turnaround times and thus streamline processes,” said Brian Demski, Product Marketer for Gamber-Johnson LLC. “Tablets and other rugged devices assist in achieving these efficiencies by providing wireless capabilities for inventory tracking, product scanning and order picking.”

Consumers are not only expecting quick delivery times, but also want complete visibility and real-time status of their deliveries. Therefore, supply chains today must collect more data and feed that information to the consumer.

“To enable data collection at this scale, more mobile technology is being put in the hands of workers, so that information can be made immediately available to the consumer,” said Jim Dempsey, Director at Panasonic. “This added technology is not only enabling enhanced data capture to inform the consumer, it’s also arming employees with more information.”

Mobile devices enable workers to search within the data and share information with each other, and that can lead to better organizational transparency, streamlined operations and better communication. Additionally, because worker interaction with the technology is so important, ease of use has become a big trend. Companies are shifting away from Windows Mobile and Windows CE operating systems, according to Dempsey, and moving to Android systems, which are more user-friendly and similar to consumer mobile products.

“More companies in the materials handling space are adopting touchscreen devices with modern interfaces, as opposed to the old ‘green screen’ devices with keypads that were previously commonplace in the industry,” Dempsey said. “This trend is also gaining traction because of the fact that Windows Mobile is going end-of-life in 2020, so customers that are still using the legacy technology are being pushed to upgrade.”

Dempsey said these devices are being equipped with more robust computing power, because they are performing increasingly complex tasks, such as running voice technology or AR. Workers are relying more on mobile devices to do their jobs efficiently without downtime, so the reliability of the technology is key.

Important Considerations and Future Improvements

Those purchasing these devices for a material handling or manufacturing floor must be sure they are rugged and enterprise-grade. While prices for consumer devices might be tempting, they are not built for the tough conditions commonly found in material handling operations. Dempsey said facilities may not be temperature controlled, and many times these environments are extremely cold or hot. This can cause condensation or humidity issues, which can impact the functionality of the digital equipment.

“Furthermore, having a device that’s rugged from the inside out is critical for dealing with the vibration, shock and drops expected in a warehouse environment,” Dempsey said. “Workers may be wearing gloves or working on a loading dock in the rain, so having the right screen technology is important.”

Demski, of Gamber-Johnson, advised that material handlers should consider how the environment will impact not just the devices being used, but also their accessories. This is especially true for computers mounted to forklift trucks.

“It is important that your mounting equipment can hold up during the harsh, rugged workdays,” Demski averred. “Having a portable yet secure solution that can be easily adjusted and provide improved ergonomics to the user, but is also out of the drivers line of site, are all items to consider.”

Mobile computers for forklift trucks are increasingly becoming smaller to help increase driver visibility, which improves workplace safety and reduces risks caused by obstructed vision. Other safety features often incorporated in computing devices used by forklift drivers are screen-blanking capabilities that restrict use while the truck is in motion.

“In addition, a common trend is utilizing ‘all-in-one’ devices to cut back on the number of devices needed during the workday and to reduce the mounting footprint on vehicles,” Demski said. Another improvement made to mobile devices is their battery life to extend the use time, so they don’t need to be swapped out or recharged.

Of course, when introducing any digital technology to the plant floor, cyber security is always a factor, and mobile computers are not an exception.

“Since mobile devices are connected to a network, they’re capable of being compromised with malware or other cyber threats,” said Dempsey. “When you’re dealing with company data, it’s imperative that the devices being used are highly secure and protected on the network.”

He warned that in low-cost consumer devices, manufacturers often install cheaply made components that can create quality and security issues in some cases, such as malware unknowingly installed within the device. There is no question, however, that the popularity of mobile devices and other digital technologies will increase, as the industry experiences their speed and transparency benefits.

“No matter how the technology develops, mobile computing at the smart edge of the network will always play a large part in supporting the worker and keeping them connected to the various technologies within the warehouse,” Dempsey said. WMHS