By Hilary Duffy, ADLINK
With warehouse and logistics operators under continual pressure to satisfy demand and stay ahead of, or at least match the service levels of their competitors, many are turning to new technology to increase their automation. Those aiming to lead the field are finding machine vision and artificial intelligence (AI) technology to be a game-changer in the race to optimize warehouse packing lines with innovation delivering improved accuracy, efficiency and quality.
On average, 69% of customers will not shop with a company again if their delivery is late according to the Warehousing Education & Research Council (WERC).*
Customers demand excellent customer experience with accurate on-time deliveries of the right product, at the right time, in the right place. Or they take their business elsewhere.
Consumers are also demanding more product variety. As more manufacturers and distributors take on a greater number of distinct items in a product range, product proliferation– and the need to pack smaller more differentiated items – is becoming an added pressure in the warehouse.
WERC foresees increasing investment in automated systems throughout 2020 in areas where the technology can prove it benefits the bottom line and increases productivity. Measurable ROI and success from early adopters are influencing companies who hesitated to invest previously but who now see the attraction of the capital investment required.
AI has the potential to create between $3.5 trillion and $5.8 trillion in value annually but so far only about 20% of AI-aware companies are currently using it in a core business process or at scale, (McKinsey).
Machine vision AI technology can be transformational in delivering bottom-line benefits for warehouse operations of all sizes. Simply speaking machine vision seeks to have a computer see and understand in the same way that human vision does. AI enables the vision data to be interpreted and to trigger action. Generating business value from automating processes where vision is needed can increase productivity, improve accuracy, quality and efficiency. The first step is deciding where to get started.
An industrial machine vision AI devkit can provide a low-cost entry point for the industry to get started with machine vision AI technology. For example, ADLINK recently launched Vizi-AI, which provides the first step on the journey to achieving business value from machine vision AI technology. It enables the industry to unlock their own enormous potential to reap the rewards of digital transformation and IoT at the edge.
One such industry is warehousing and logistics where companies such as ADLINK are helping a number of customers to transform their warehouse packing lines with state-of-the-art machine vision technology. Its Smart Pallet solution builds on the flexibility of the plug and plays software and hardware offered by Vizi-AI to bring intelligence and automation to the labour-intensive packaging and logistics process. The goal is to provide an intelligent insight which can be acted upon at the moment to make a truly automated warehouse operation run smoothly, efficiently and effectively without causing costly disruption to existing operations.
Most distribution warehouses can be broken down into various tasks, all of which can benefit greatly from leveraging AI technologies. The tasks in order of product lifecycle include but are not limited to receiving, storing, picking, packing and shipping. The more efficient a distribution warehouse can be in handling each of those tasks, the more profitable they can be, allowing them to expand and offer additional higher-value services to their clients.
As the world continues to embrace and invest in the technologies responsible for the fourth industrial revolution in manufacturing, leaders must consider how the same technologies can be leveraged in other areas of our business or industries, namely distribution. Arguably, manufacturing is responsible for Industry 4.0 technologies like robotics, automation and AI. This is likely why the plant floor is years ahead of the distribution warehouse.
Companies like Amazon.com have had the luxury of reinventing the distribution warehouse and processes therein. They continue to innovate and experiment with Industry 4.0 technologies. In order to keep up with industry leaders like Amazon.com it’s not necessary to start from scratch, therefore the AI technologies that we will highlight in this article not only impact operational effectiveness but are also considered non-invasive.
Receiving and Storing
Machine vision AI can be used to automate and improve the traceability of all assets throughout their lifecycle. Machine vision and beaconing equipped forklifts, for example, remove the human error during the receiving and storing process. Automating the scanning and data entry required for inventory management allows forklift drivers and receiving staff to make speed and safety their first priority.
Whether this is used for assembly or order fulfilment, robots, equipped with machine vision and AI can accurately pick parts and place them in totes or boxes. AI allows users to take this a step further, by identifying the best “pick point” and placement orientation speeding up the packaging process and maximizing package volume.
Each order can be audited for correctness as it is packed by using machine vision AI. Package contents can be recorded and classified as they move along the packing line. One camera scans the box contents and another reads a barcode. The order is then automatically validated against the contents. This can support and/or replace a quality assurance technician allowing them to be reallocated to other tasks throughout the warehouse. Orders marked as incomplete or incorrect can be marked for re-packing prior to shipping.
Machine vision and AI continue to audit each order for correctness during palletization. All packages placed on a pallet are marked based on unique identifiers, shape and size. Validating pallets for order correctness and fulfilment traceability can net massive gains in profitability. The industry is plagued with human errors during the palletization process, and high-mix orders cannot currently benefit from the cost/capabilities of robotics.
Safety and Security
Machine vision and AI can be used to determine if and when employees should be allowed entry, are wearing the proper PPE, or are working in unauthorized areas. This same technology can be used to identify slick spots, trip spots, and/or pinch points too.
In summary, the ROI of a smart system utilizing machine vision AI can be substantial. Through automation and eliminating current points of failure in processes, productivity per labour hour will increase, and costs from returns, waste, and other sources of shrinkage will decline. The ergonomic system can also make workers’ jobs easier and improve workplace safety.
Investing in machine vision AI technology such as Smart Pallet is potentially transformational and it can be realized without the hefty price tag and operational disruption that a large scale IT investment project can often entail. In fact with Vizi-AI, warehouse automation can begin at the very early conceptual stage then easily progress to a production scale deployed industrial solution.