Industrial Automation: Implementing Intelligent Automation in the Warehouse and DC

Industrial automation has been in use in the form of water wheels, windmills, and water pumps for centuries. However, these devices may not seem like industrial automation to modern eyes. They require lots of human oversight and labor to keep running, and in the twenty-first century, industrial automation is designed to reduce the human element. This modern automation–the kind that makes modern industry possible–is generally backed by the intelligence of computer systems.

Intelligent automation adds another layer to industrial automation by combining automation with programmable logic. Conditional statements like “if this, then this” allow nearly every scenario contingency to be planned and accounted for in order to allow machinery to operate with minimal human oversight. Intelligent automation was incorporated into manufacturing processes in the 1960s, but it didn’t start to make its way into warehouses and logistics until the 1970s. Today, as computers grow cheaper and more powerful and innovations like Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) become more feasible, forward-thinking leaders in logistics are realizing the potential of intelligent industrial automation in their warehouses. The promise of warehouse automation is higher efficiency, better safety, lower labor costs, and lower Total Cost of Business (TCOB).

Assessing Your Supply Chain for Industrial Automation

Although warehouse automation can pay off handsomely, automating your warehouse or distribution center is a significant investment and a flawed implementation can create extra costs. Before implementing automation, perform an honest and informed assessment of your logistics operation. You’ll need to:

  • Determine Location: Will automation technology be installed in an existing warehouse or a new one? Installing the equipment in an existing warehouse may take part or all of the warehouse out of operation during installation. Putting automated machinery in a space that is too small or otherwise ill-suited for it can reduce its efficiency. Building a new warehouse meant to integrate industrial automation may actually be less expensive and offer the best return on investment (ROI).
  • Consider Skillsets: Modern intelligent industrial automation requires a particular set of skills to implement and maintain. If you aren’t currently using any kind of automation, your employees may not have the skills needed to operate and maintain automated systems. A look at the cost-effectiveness of hiring the staff with the knowledge and experience to operate and maintain these systems should be completed before making the decision to go ahead with implementation.
  • Develop Processes: In the warehouse, the workflow for slotting loads into inventory and picking them to fulfill orders is everything. Learn as much as possible about your warehouse workflow, your supply chain as a whole, and the automated systems that are available, and develop an automation plan that enhances that workflow and supports the movement of products to different locations in your supply chain.
  • Arrange Support: Once you’ve identified the industrial automation that works best with your products and warehouse workflow, you need to arrange to support these systems either by training your employees in maintenance, hiring employees that have the needed skills, or contracting with a maintenance and repair service that specializes in keeping warehouse automation up to spec.

A thorough assessment of your warehouse’s operational needs and how they could be improved on through industrial automation is the only way to ensure that your investment pays off. But in order to make an informed assessment and final decision, you should understand the types of industrial automation that are available.

Intelligent Industrial Automation of Warehouse Storage Areas

An automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS), which slots pallets into racks and retrieves them, is at the heart of any intelligently automated warehouse. In fact, there are even warehouses which use the racks of the ASRS as part of the building’s structure. The way the racking in your automated warehouse is laid out will depend on what type of system or systems are being used to move product at the load unit level. The most common load unit mover types in an ASRS are:

  • Fixed Aisle Cranes: In this system, a crane is mounted to a track on a single aisle and a vertical lifting module equipped with forks moves pallets between individual slots. Multiple cranes are generally used in this sort of system. These types of ASRS tend to work quickly, but have higher equipment and maintenance costs due to their multiple systems.
  • Moveable Aisle Cranes: Very similar to their fixed aisle counterparts, these forklift-equipped cranes are differentiated by the fact that they can move from aisle to aisle. A system like this has the advantage of depending on fewer lifting devices to do the work. However, a moveable aisle crane can be more complicated than a fixed one, and, due to the need to move from aisle to aisle, it can be slower in performing its intended functions.
  • Pallet Moles/Shuttles: In order to maximize the volume of a building dedicated to storing product, some warehouses dispense with aisles entirely. In this case, a pallet mole or shuttle is integrated into the racks and is able to move pallets from slot to slot within a single row. Individual rows can be designated as channels for a single Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) or customer. A pallet mole has the disadvantage of not being able to move vertically or from row to row. It will either need to be moved as needed, or moles for each row in the rack will need to be installed.

An ASRS offers a degree of customization, and the type you choose will largely depend on the number of different products passing through your warehouse. A warehouse specializing in multiple types of products moving through quickly in and out may be best served by an aisle-less ASRS that uses pallet moles to move multiple channels simultaneously. A warehouse with fewer, larger items, for which dwell times are longer and accuracy is paramount may be best served by fixed or moveable aisle cranes.

It may also be that your warehouse doesn’t need an ASRS. Your storage areas and procedures could be more than adequate. Instead, your warehouse may benefit from industrial automation that is able to move load units from zone to zone of the warehouse.

Ground Level Industrial Automation for Warehouses

Traditional forms of industrial automation, like conveyor belts, can move heavy loads from loading docks to processing areas and from storage to packing and shipping much more quickly than a forklift can travel the same distance. Conveyor belts are a simple form of industrial automation that can free up your bays much more quickly and reduce the number of trucks loitering outside the warehouse. Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), on the other hand, can replace the human-operated forklifts that unload trailers.

AGVs don’t require a human operator and are guided by an exterior signal. It could be a radio signal, a laser, an electronic or colored strip on the floor, or even a particular wavelength of light emitted by overhead lighting. Following a fixed route, AGVs can do work 24/7 inside a particular zone or can be detailed to follow a fixed route during which they transfer loads from zone to zone.

AGVs take many forms. The most common is a forklift, but they can be fitted with other equipment as well. AGVs with a small form factor can lift products in containers and transfer them to different zones for processing. It’s possible to mix types of AGVs and to combine AGVs with non-intelligent industrial automation in the warehouse. Although AGVs have less flexibility than human-operated lifting equipment, they make fewer errors and can work without taking a break. For this reason, AGVs are a good choice for warehouse and distribution centers that work around the clock.

Intelligent Automation of Warehouse Palletization

AGVs are one kind of ground-level industrial automation. Another type is the automated palletizer, which automates the tedious process of packing pallets. These devices load your products onto pallets in well-balanced and secure loads much faster and more accurately than humans can. The most common types of palletizers are:

  • Inline Palletizers: Essentially a highly engineered and precise conveyor belt, an inline palletizer moves products down the line and adjusts them as they travel. At the end of the line, the product containers are neatly arranged and a clamp lifts them onto the pallet. Some of these palletizers will rotate the entire pallet to avoid creating seams in the stack of packages as each successive layer is added. An inline palletizer works very quickly, but really only excels when handling a single type of product.
  • Robotic Arm Palletizers: A robotic arm palletizer handles each individual container of a product with an articulated robotic arm. It is slower than an inline palletizer, but has the advantage of being able to handle different types of products, allowing warehouses to automate the palletization of a mixed-case pallet.
  • Combination Palletizers: The two types of palletizers above are not mutually exclusive. An inline palletizer can stack products on a pallet to a certain height, and a robotic palletizer can take over and load the pallet with a different type of product or a differently sized container of the same product. Combining the two offers both speed and flexibility in customizing loads.

Automation is also available to unpack pallets. Depalletizers can unpack a pallet layer by layer, saving you the labor of manually breaking apart pallets. A palletizer and a depalletizer may be the only industrial automation a distribution center needs. For instance, a depalletizer can unpack incoming loads of single-SKU products which are manually stored and picked, and a combination palletizer can create a mixed load to be shipped to a final destination.

The keys to implementing intelligent automation successfully are knowing exactly what type of automation is needed and integrating it into a fully supported logistics system. Full support means ensuring that every part of your process and every piece of equipment you use is optimized to work with automation.

Supporting Intelligent Industrial Automation with iGPS Plastic Pallets

Implementing industrial automation intelligently means supporting automated systems with packaging that won’t damage or be damaged by the machinery. It means using packaging that makes data easily readable by automated systems and transparent to the humans who operate and maintain them.

Synergy between your choice of intelligent industrial automation platforms like ASRSs and AGVs can be enhanced by the use of an intelligent shipping platform. Only the iGPS plastic pallet has features that integrate with all types of industrial automation in the warehouse. The iGPS plastic pallet offers:

  • Consistency: The iGPS plastic pallet is free of the variations of wood platforms that can cause automated machinery to miscalculate and damage the products or platform. A precise plastic pallet will help your automated system deliver consistently high performance.
  • Durability: Plastic pallets from iGPS are durable enough to be handled safely by any type of load-level automated system without damage and they can make nearly a hundred trips through the supply chain in their lifetime.
  • Intelligence: The iGPS pallet incorporates smart features like GS1 standardized Global Returnable Asset Identifier (GRAI) numbers that make it readable by all types of automated systems. This allows accurate data capture at all points of a properly equipped supply chain.
  • Standardization: The iGPS plastic pallet is fully compliant with Grocery Manufacturer Association (GMA) specifications. That means iGPS plastic pallets can be easily handled by existing warehouse equipment as well as by new industrial automated warehouse systems.

In a single package, iGPS provides a shipping platform that easily supports intelligent industrial automation in warehouses and distribution centers. The iGPS plastic pallet is fully equipped to maximize the efficiency gains from implementing warehouse automation, reduce your TCOB, and help you get a return on your investment in automation as soon as possible.

Only iGPS:

Is the market leader in plastic pallet pooling

Supports integrating their pallet with your warehouse automation

Provides a pallet rated as Food Equipment Certified by the NSF

Provides a pallet sanitary enough for food, but strong enough to ship steel

It’s the intelligent shipping platform of the future, and it’s available across North America to help companies get the most from the intelligent industrial automation in their warehouses, distribution centers, and in all parts of the supply chain.  

Accept nothing less.

iGPS’ durable plastic shipping platform integrates with and supports your warehouse automation to lower your Total Cost of Business. To get started, give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at [email protected], or visit our contact page.