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From AS/RS to AGVs and IMRs, automated systems move product

April 1, 2022
Warehouses benefit from software and safety, but hardware is a critical part of material handling

Michael Lennard is industry consultant, material handling, and Evan Kaiser is industry director, warehousing and logistics, at Rockwell Automation.

What sorts of sensing technologies have improved the effectiveness and reliability of picking systems and conveyance systems?

Michael Lennard, industry consultant, material handling, Rockwell Automation: Smart sensors can empower your warehouse staff with richer information about the health and performance of these systems. Conventional sensors typically only monitor a basic parameter, like an on or off status. But smart sensors can track several parameters, like vibration and temperature, and diagnostics, like signal strength. These insights can help staff drive process improvements at the control level and uncover opportunities to improve overall warehouse operations.

Also read: How close are we to majority-automated warehouses?

For example, a smart sensor can detect that its margin is diminishing over time, which could be caused by dirt or dust buildup. The sensor can then inform your maintenance team of the issue so they can clean it before the buildup results in a stoppage. Smart sensors can also provide the needed plant-floor information to optimize maintenance plans and priorities.

Smart sensors can also help you do more with less. Some warehouses, for instance, use costly laser scanners to detect jams because sensors run the risk of misidentifying jams if they can’t detect gaps between flowing materials. But smart sensors can avoid this problem because they can detect variations in signal strength.

Of course, the richer information available from sensors is only useful if you can bring it into your higher-level systems. Maintenance, analytics and other enterprise-level systems are too often siloed in warehouse operations. By integrating these systems, you can bring together data and create a more optimized maintenance strategy.

Evan Kaiser

Industry director, warehousing and logistics, Rockwell Automation

As warehouse distribution centers continue to grow larger, how are tracking and intelligence helping to keep up with customer demands?

Evan Kaiser, industry director, warehousing and logistics, Rockwell Automation: As warehouse operations shift from pallet loads to individual items, systems for tracking and managing inventory flow must change. They need to be more dynamic and flexible to support breaking pallets down into individual units and to manage the mixing and matching of different products.

Warehouse operators are increasingly looking to automate the scan process as they deal with a high volume of products coming into a warehouse and a constrained workforce. A high-powered scan tunnel is an option, but it can be cost-prohibitive. This has pushed some creative operators to identify other ways to automate scanning that are both effective and economical.

Some operators are looking for ways to identify packages without scanning them. For example, RFID labels allow you to identify packages without concerns about getting a good scan or if a package is facing the right direction. You can also encode data into RFID tags that can be used later down the process, such as for tracking and tracing high-value items.

While tracking is important, even more important and difficult is routing packages to get them to the right place at the right time to avoid bottlenecks. Independent cart technology offers a good solution. Its programmable, independently controlled movers can give you the flexibility you need to move different products around your warehouse. It can also give you full tracking capabilities because you can monitor the position of each mover in real time.

Which technologies have allowed warehouses to increase throughput rates while expanding product ranges and still maintaining accurate order fulfillment?

Michael Lennard, industry consultant, material handling, Rockwell Automation: First, whether you need to optimize the use of existing equipment or identify what gains new technology can deliver, simulation and emulation software can help you discover the best results possible. Using the software, you can do scenario planning and experiment with product flow in a digital tool set. This can give you a high level of confidence in new investments by proving them out first in a virtual environment.

In terms of hardware, there’s a need to move away from yesterday’s large, fixed assets that aren’t easily reconfigured. Independent cart technology provides a good alternative. It offers a high level of flexibility to support a wide range of products. And it can achieve high throughput rates with a very small footprint.

Robots can also help you remain productive, especially amid a worker shortage. But, before you invest in robots, it’s important to consider your control strategy.

Maintenance teams are typically less familiar with robot control systems than with the PLCs used in their other automated equipment. That’s where a unified robot control approach may make sense. It uses a traditional PLC to control both your equipment and non-safety functions of your robots, which can help simplify training and support and reduce maintenance-related downtime.

Because of the warehouse’s physical nature, how much of the facility’s hardware can be replaced with software in order to facilitate easier upgrades, expansions and reconfigurations?

Evan Kaiser, industry director, warehousing and logistics, Rockwell Automation: Hardware will always be needed to move material through a warehouse. Because of this, you shouldn’t think about how software can replace hardware. Instead, think about how software can augment hardware to help you boost your performance and meet customer demands.

Simulation and emulation software can give you an impartial judge to help evaluate different hardware solutions and operating strategies. It can consider factors like equipment speeds, operator actions and maintenance schedules to help you reduce risk and optimize warehouse layout and operations.

Analytics software provides important measurement of how both your hardware and your people are performing. It can also give you insights into other key areas like energy usage and help you proactively address maintenance issues before they cause downtime.

A cloud-based computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) can help your maintenance teams be more efficient. It can automate tasks, like purchasing activities and the work request process. It also gives technicians anytime, anywhere access to the CMMS and information like asset history and spare parts to help them work faster. And it can schedule, assign and prioritize maintenance tasks to help reduce equipment downtime.

Michael Lennard

Industry consultant, material handling, Rockwell Automation

How have automated storage and retrieval systems' (AS/RS) roles changed over the past 10 years?

Michael Lennard, industry consultant, material handling, Rockwell Automation: The smaller footprint and increased flexibility of automated storage and retrieval systems are allowing them to be used in more environments. Some companies, for example, are using these systems to create micro-fulfillment centers in small facilities or even in the back of stores. This gives the companies greater flexibility in their supply chains and more touch points closer to the customer to quickly fulfill orders.

At the same time, a small-footprint and highly flexible AS/RS is just as relevant in a large fulfillment center. They allow you to process a large number of SKUs within a compact space, which is crucial to meeting the needs of online consumers who increasingly expect orders to be fulfilled in a day or two, or even a matter of hours.

Will autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) replace automated guided vehicles (AGVs) altogether, or is there room for both, based on the application or complementary functions?

Evan Kaiser, industry director, warehousing and logistics, Rockwell Automation: There’s certainly room for both AGVs and AMRs, but we’ll likely see greater adoption of AMRs in the future. Right now, an AGV may be appealing because it can offer a simpler control architecture and faster speeds. But AMRs are easier to deploy and have full autonomy, which is more important than ever as warehouse operators seek to maximize their flexibility.

How will ANSI/RIA R15.08 affect robotic solutions in warehouse environments?

Michael Lennard, industry consultant, material handling, Rockwell Automation: With the growing popularity of industrial mobile robots (IMRs), such as AMRs, this standard with UL 3100 helps to facilitate their safe operation in warehouses and provides a means for third-party safety test and certification by nationally recognized test laboratories (NRTLs).

ANSI/R15.08 is intended to help ensure that both end users and IMR manufacturers have the necessary information to enhance personnel protection in warehouse environments where people and IMRs interact. The standard helps mitigate risk in unforeseen conditions or events that can occur despite robust training, designated areas, pedestrian walkways and crosswalks, signal lights and signs.

While the operational scope of IMRs may differ from other equipment and machines, they frequently interact with other mobile platforms or are used with other machines and equipment as part of a larger system. ANSI/R15.08 outlines specific responsibilities for IMR manufacturers and integrators. It also includes safety requirements for IMRs that are adapted for particular applications, deployed in certain sites and operating with other IMRs as part of a system, known as an industrial mobile robot fleet (IMRF).

To develop ANSI/R15.08, the subcommittee for Industrial Mobile Robot Safety identified relevant guidance provided by the ANSI/RIA R15.06 and ANSI/ITSDF B56.5—the most closely related standard on mobile platforms. It should be noted that a parallel effort is underway at UL with the publication of ANSI UL 3100:2021, the Safety Standard for Automated Mobile Platforms. There is collaboration between these two committees.

Implementation of new technologies, such as IMRs, and compliance with applicable new safety standards may be challenging for OEMs, system integrators and users. Safety-services providers can help companies understand and comply with the new ANSI R15.08 and UL 3100 safety standards.

Given the extraordinary percentage of manual operation in most distribution centers, will the 24/7 fully autonomous warehouse order-fulfillment center ever become commonplace?

Evan Kaiser, industry director, warehousing and logistics, Rockwell Automation: People are integral to warehouse operations, especially in larger operations with a lot of variability. The challenge is finding and retaining human workers in the tight labor market.

This is why it’s important to view your operations through the lens of who or what is best suited for different jobs in your warehouse. People should fill the roles where they can be the most productive and where operations most benefit from having a person’s ingenuity and problem-solving skills. Automated systems, robotics and software can then be employed in other positions where human workers’ skills are needed less.

About the author: Mike Bacidore
About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected] 

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