The rise of e-commerce has brought about significant disruption to traditional logistics activities, demanding constant adjustment to best meet changing demand. Similar adaptability is vital in intralogistics to ensure orders are processed and fulfilled effectively. In this article, Stephen Hayes, managing director of Beckhoff UK, explains how to establish scalable, adaptable intralogistics activity from the warehouse floor up.
Traditional manufacturing and warehouse automation systems have many parallels with early IT systems, which were based on centralised mainframe computers to which ‘dumb’ terminals were attached and operated by data entry clerks.
Then came the era of distributed computing systems, where terminals were attached to local computing clusters, which would then consolidate the data for onward transmission to a centralised mainframe. As dumb terminals became smarter, in time they transformed into computers in their own right, like the PCs and Macs operated by today’s ‘knowledge users’.
This evolution has been mirrored in intralogistics automation today, where the intelligence is distributed across the warehouse floor to provide both adaptability and scalability for skilled warehouse personnel. Key to managing the need to adapt is an overarching management system, but this is driven by control in the field — particularly on the conveying systems.
According to LEK Executive Insights, the cost of automation solutions has decreased over recent years, and effectiveness has improved, leading to large, fully automated systems being deployed in a variety of industries, “beyond the historical vanguard of courier express, parcel players and airport baggage handling.”
This comes at an opportune time, as the rise of e-commerce continues to take hold. Now more than ever, customers are able to place orders at their convenience from companies globally, with the speed of delivery being a primary decision-making factor. With eMarketer forecasting e-commerce to account for 16 per cent of global sales in 2020 — though this percentage has almost certainly increased due to COVID-19 — the need for quick order fulfilment is growing.
Demand for automation is expected to remain high in the coming years, putting market players under significant stress to find staff with the required skills to cover difficult processes, including unloading, singulation and picking. Clients looking to outsource their logistics but wanting to benefit from the advantages of automation will have to negotiate longer contracts with their suppliers to allow them to invest in automation.
Many companies in the sector have experienced significant growth in recent years at 12.5 per cent per year between 2016 and 2018, putting them under significant pressure to find the resources to deliver their projects.
At the same time, they need to invest in R&D to develop new solutions and broaden their portfolio. There are also technologies under development, from exoskeletons to robotics, that could change the way intralogistics will perform in the future. However, conveying technology remains a staple of even the most automated warehouse — and its important that conveyors develop to keep pace with the ever-changing demand.
The intralogistics sector has a requirement for a field controller which is easy to adapt, which rapidly scales up to new logistics setups and which facilitates adjustments to throughput. As a complete IP67 solution for the smart connected warehouse, Beckhoff’s EP7402 two-channel EtherCAT motor-driven roller (MDR) controller provides four-channel digital I/O and combines fast communication and power into one cable to simplify installation.
An integrated EtherCAT junction allows easy safety integration and fully scalable additional I/O. EP7402 is an integrated conveyor control solution for smart warehouse automation with zero pressure accumulation (ZPA), one-by-one single release and slug mode, where all the items are released at once.
ZPA prevents items from touching in-transit, with conveyors equipped with photo-sensors in each zone, which send a signal to a zone controller. EP7402 provides full data transparency with analytics, seamless integration with cloud services, and worldwide data availability.
As e-commerce continues to reshape the demands placed on intralogistics, the ability to adapt quickly and control systems on the warehouse floor becomes increasingly important. Logistics managers should keep in mind that while new automation continues to introduce new ways of working into warehouses, it also offers new ways of enhancing existing technologies — and it’s the latter that will help intralogistics quickly adapt.