By Will Leet, Contributor
Today’s e-commerce explosion creates an unprecedented need for change in distribution center operations. In the third quarter of 2019, e-commerce sales increased an estimated 17% year-over-year, while total retail sales increased 4% in the same period. Distribution centers must also keep pace with the speed at which customers expect their orders to be fulfilled, as two-day, one-day and even same-day shipping become the norm.
These heightened expectations and demands create the perfect storm for fulfillment operations. It’s no surprise that it has become increasingly difficult to keep orders flowing on time and with greater accuracy.
Distribution centers rely on conveyors to keep materials moving from one location to the next. When issues arise, critical processes can shut down, leading to unexpected delays, inefficient use of labor, stressed employees, and—ultimately—customer dissatisfaction. Although conveyors may seem like a fundamental—but basic—component of a distribution center, e-commerce pressure drives conveyor innovation. Innovation in this sector manifests itself in new system technologies (often guided by automation) and new operational processes (often guided by software).
Companies embrace the new technology to stay competitive, but they also need to manage risk on investing in new technology. This is where scalability for new technology is paramount. Demonstrating a new innovation’s ability to mitigate problems or improve efficiencies with connected technologies on a small scale allows businesses to capture value, at a minimal risk, and have a path to rapidly scale up the proven benefits.
Agility is another modern challenge facing conveyors today. Systems and processes that were designed and commissioned for the way we did business 10 years ago are now expected to hold up to the demands of digital buyers with access to more online shopping than ever before.
Conveyors have been historically considered a fixed asset and are seen as rigid, fixed solutions directly tied to operations and generating income. When packages aren’t going out the door, income doesn’t come in the door. Malfunctions can cause a variety of problems, including product sorted to incorrect locations, impeded flow and even inventory damage. Furthermore, human intervention is required to address these problems, which can lead to thousands of dollars in lost productivity.
The rise of digital buyers requires conveyors to have high availability and consistent, reliable processes in operation. Operators must find a balance between keeping conveyors up and running and potentially disrupting processes and throughput targets. Generally, keeping a system up takes priority, but it can be at the expense of deferring regular maintenance.
Like any critical asset, proper maintenance is necessary for conveyors to run efficiently during critical peak times. Fulfillment operations have traditionally relied on time- or calendar-based maintenance programs, where systems are evaluated using predefined service intervals—much like changing the oil in your car every 3 months or 3,000 miles. The downside of this method is service may be performed regardless of whether the asset needs service or not. And, all too often, maintenance is done more frequently than recommended to mitigate risk. Time-based maintenance also treats all tasks alike—critical and non-critical assets share the same level of priority. On one hand, you may have deferred maintenance on critical assets; on the other, you could be performing maintenance more frequently than necessary on non-critical assets. But, what if your asset could tell you exactly when it needs service?
Digitizing Your DC
One low-risk, first step fulfillment operations can take is harnessing the power of industrial internet of things (IIoT). By connecting all facility assets—from machine-level sensors, system controls and smart devices to workers—connected platforms can aggregate data points to deliver real-time information about overall facility performance. By using live dashboards, distribution center managers can gain full visibility throughout their operations, enabling them to make informed decisions and quickly respond to changes or issues. These dashboards can provide detailed performance metrics, trending graphs and deliver fault alerts to mobile devices.
For conveyors, this means that jams and other errors can be detected as they happen. Sensors can monitor within a variety of parameters, including scanner read rates, motor and gearbox vibration, control panel power, temperature, current draw and flow balance at merging points. Connected platforms then aggregate this data to identify conveyor health and performance trends. These platforms provide operators with insights into problems, such as scanner misreads, gapping errors, excessive vibration and manual operation of merge lanes.
Asset management and predictive maintenance can quickly and easily be deployed to yield immediate, long-term benefits, including minimized equipment breakdown, lower handling costs, greater flexibility and more. Because conveyors play such a critical role in fulfillment operations, it’s important to take advantage of the data that IIoT technology provides. This information can create uptime improvements and more accurate, predictive maintenance schedules for operations of any size.
Unpacking the Data
Many distribution centers operate with little to no reliance on operational data. Other business sectors have been quick to embrace IIoT-enabled technology, but distribution center leaders have only recently started incorporating this technology. In part, this may be due to the culture of fulfillment operations, which have historically been considered cost-centers. There has also been a hesitation to have transparency of performance. The return on investment demonstrated in other industries is more than enticing, but as a new technology to fulfillment operations, the financial benefits of IIoT have not been well-documented. This financial uncertainty on return has been a barrier. It’s difficult to understand the benefits of data utilization, when day-to-day operations appear to be functioning well on the surface.
For example, a typical fulfillment center might rely on a handful of senior-level maintenance professionals to keep their conveyors running smoothly. These professionals leverage their decades of experience to identify potential risks and potential improvements, but may lack the conclusive evidence to support a need for a pricey repair when they anticipate a problem. With connected technology, these technicians can combine their expertise with data-driven insights to proactively quantify real results and respond to issues. Data uncovers insights that might not be visible at surface level—preventing costly downtime and ensuring conveyors are operating at their maximum potential.
The importance of conveyors cannot be overstated in logistics and supply chain management. As online sales continue to rapidly grow, distribution operations must find every opportunity to increase efficiencies within these systems to keep inventory moving. The power of IIoT-enabled technology can find such efficiencies, and often prevent and predict problems before they lead to downtime.
While it may feel difficult to navigate this new frontier, organizations of all sizes can benefit from gaining deeper visibility into their operations. Higher equipment reliability and improved labor utilization are just some of the immediate benefits connected technology brings. Finding these efficiencies will help companies deliver inventory to customers faster than ever—ultimately, improving customer experiences and driving repeat business.