CHICAGO – Distribution centers and warehouses are at the center of e-commerce. Their ability to quickly and efficiently load, unload and move pallets and individual items is the key to maximize efficiencies that companies want, and the delivery times that customers demand. Finding those efficiencies was the basis of many of the robot and automation solutions on display at ProMat 2019 last week.
Honeywell was one of the companies that took center stage with a wide array of technologies to help with various aspects of distribution centers/warehouses.
The company’s Connected Assets offering, part of The Connected Distribution Center from Honeywell Intelligrated, relies on sensors embedded at key points of a sortation system. The system can monitor equipment performance and trending insights, including the temperature and vibration of motor gearboxes, electricity consumed by control panels, and overall facility temperature and humidity.
The platform uses the collected data to develop trending information on performance and asset health, allowing distribution center managers and operators to use these real-time insights to preempt and predict equipment failures and drive process efficiencies, including specific details about the status of material handling equipment, such as sorting systems.
“Many distribution and fulfillment centers today struggle with repetitive issues inside their facilities. Too often, they are not capturing and properly analyzing equipment performance data, which makes it difficult to identify trends over an extended period and take corrective action,” said Eric Rice, principal product manager for IIoT applications with Honeywell Intelligrated. “With Connected Assets, companies can detect and predict risks and opportunities with asset-centric advanced analytics, which can help reduce downtime by identifying a potential issue before it becomes a problem.”
According to Rice, one Connected Assets customer was alerted to an increased motor vibration in their sorting system, enabling the customer to immediately service the equipment before it failed. Another customer was alerted to increasing no-read rates from scanners on their outbound system. This helped them identify a faulty label printer, which was quickly replaced.
The company used ProMat as a venue to discuss several other new systems designed for distribution centers/warehouses:
AI-enabled robotic unloader
A newly introduced artificial intelligence-enabled robotic unloader operates autonomously inside of a trailer, significantly cutting the ergonomically challenging manual labor and minimizing damage to packages.
“For distribution center workers, unloading packages is labor-intensive, physically demanding and injury-prone work that is often subject to extreme temperatures. These factors lead to low employee satisfaction and high turnover – as much as 36%, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics,” said Matt Wicks, Honeywell Integrated vice president of product development. “With our Robotic Unloader, we are using advanced machine learning to allow workers to remove themselves from the extreme environment and to oversee multiple unloading machines, increasing productivity and improving safety.”
Honeywell’s Robotic Unloader (see video, above) drives into a trailer or container and uses machine vision to identify various package shapes and sizes as well as the optimal approach to unloading. A robotic arm with a series of small suction cups conforms to the package shape to extract it from the stack. A conveyor below the arm can serve as a sweeper for packages to move them out of the trailer.
“In real-world applications, we are unloading a rate of up to 1,500 cases per hour and helping companies maximize throughput safely and efficiently,” said Wicks. “We’re working with Carnegie Mellon University to deploy advanced machine learning to expand the robotic capabilities with improved 3D vision, perception, processing power and gripping.”
The robot is designed to work within existing fleets to eliminate the need for modifications to trailers or standard shipping containers.
Honeywell Intelligrated also demonstrated a robotic sorter induction demo as well as item picking and mobile robotics demonstrations in collaboration with Soft Robotics and Fetch Robotics.
The company is integrating its voice-directed software for distribution centers, Guided Work Solutions, by integrating it with the Microsoft Dynamics 365 warehousing platform.
Guided Work Solutions enables workers to receive and enter data via voice prompts, which Honeywell said reduces errors compared to manual entry.
“Too many small- and medium-sized distribution centers today still rely on error-prone, paper-based processes,” said Bill Birnie, general manager of voice solutions for Honeywell Safety and Productivity Solutions. “Guided Work Solutions for Microsoft Dynamics 365 is a tightly integrated, out-of-the-box offering that can be easily configured and deployed. By voice-enabling work in the warehouse, we are helping customers cut training time in half to get new workers onboarded quickly. This can help reduce labor costs in a challenging labor market.”
Reducing labor costs and increasing distribution center/warehouse efficiencies were at the heart of many of the other solutions displayed at ProMat. Among them were:
The company’s Flexo modular sortation system, as well as upgraded versions of the company’s Butler and PickPal were featured.
Flexo adapts to existing layouts and can scale and handle versatile payloads. The system is designed to work around the clock, cutting cost per shipment and the need to hire additional workers during times of peak demand. Flexo components are designed to allow for fast implementation in as short as 15 days due to its modularity and standardization, and it can be easily scaled to handle large peaks.
Combined, these solutions are designed to provide flexibility so that companies can adapt to changes in customer demand and market strategies while controlling costs. Adaptability is important because holiday shopping, back-to-school shopping as well as seasonal products lead to peaks and valleys in distribution center/warehouse activity.
The company displayed automation solutions featuring the Raymond Courier 3030, a 2,500-pound-capacity automated stacker. The Courier 3030 combines Seegrid’s guided vision technology with Raymond’s end-to-end warehouse solutions to automate end-of-line and pick-up and drop-off (P&D) applications. The company is marketing the vehicle primarily to transport and handle goods between connected manufacturing and warehouse facilities. The lift truck features reverse motion and auto-engagement functions and can reach heights up to six feet.
“Because warehouses are constantly driven to deliver and improve, our goal at Raymond is to continually evolve our products and introduce new solutions to proactively address our customers’ challenges today while identifying opportunities to adapt to their needs of tomorrow,” said Raymond CEO Michael Field. “Our intralogistics solutions portfolio is a result of closely working with these customers.”
In addition to the lift truck, other technologies Raymond featured were a zoning-and-positioning solution, and an in-aisle detection system.
The zoning-and-positioning solution uses floor-embedded radio frequency identification reader (RFID) sensors that transmit instructions to a lift truck. The in-aisle detection system, used in conjunction with wire guidance in very narrow aisles, is designed as a training reinforcement tool to alert a lift truck to certain objects in its path, slowing the vehicle to a complete stop.
Kindred showcased its AI-enabled picking robot, SORT, which features human-like grasping capabilities and separates multi-SKU batches into individual customer orders.
SORT picking robots use AutoGrasp, a robotics intelligence platform that uses machine learning to become smarter, faster, and more accurate over time. According to the company, SORT evaluates millions of data points to calculate and execute an optimal pick strategy for each task in real-time. The SORT platform combines vision, grasping and manipulation algorithms to integrate with any warehouse management software to evaluate items in real-time, picking and matching them to individual customer orders.
“Today’s e-commerce and distribution businesses face the critical roadblocks of staffing shortages and meeting throughput demands. There are simply not enough skilled workers to fill the void,” said Kindred CEO Jim Liefer. “Our SORT robots have achieved over eight million picks in production, helping our retail customers meet demand and create a dynamic workforce that marries automation with human skills.”
The company offers SORT as a Robotics as a Service (RaaS) model, enabling companies to scale their usage and costs as their business needs dictate.
ProMat is known for displaying picking robots, various lifting and sorting automation and other heavy machinery – as well as components and software for that machinery.
But some offerings are too big to display, so often videos are offered. But now technology is taking those video demonstrations a step further with virtual reality.
Dematic introduced Dematic iQ Virtual, a new emulation and simulation platform used to validate and visualize the operational aspects of automated intralogistics systems for the warehouse. Dematic iQ Virtual enables users to explore a proposed system configuration in a virtual environment and see how the system will perform in actual operation.
Dematic iQ Virtual provides an isolated, digital twin of the production environment, using graphic-rendering technology to accurately portray labor productivity, inventory flow and the efficiency of material handling automation.
The virtual emulation model uses a direct connection to Dematic iQ Optimize Warehouse Execution Software to verify efficient system operation, confirm functionality of the software integration and determine how the system will perform during a variety of operating conditions. Dematic iQ Virtual is ideal for evaluating various “what if” scenarios to determine the impact on system performance. This evaluation process drives engineering improvements to system design. The emulation modeling software is used to evaluate the designs of production and distribution intralogistics systems.
“Dematic iQ Virtual can corroborate that the intralogistics system, execution software and material handling automation will meet and exceed the performance expectations of the user,” said Scott Wahl, vice president of the Dematic Software Center of Excellence. “The emulation software allows users to be immersed into the automated warehouse environment with a three-dimensional perspective view or with a walk-through of the virtual warehouse using a virtual reality headset.”