IOT for Material Handling

An IoT Platform For Material Handling

The Internet of Things (IoT) is all about using sensor data to make better decisions.  The use of sensor data to make better decisions is nothing new in warehousing.  Warehouse management systems (WMS) have for decades relied on scans from barcode scanners to confirm floor level activities have occurred correctly.  In the last ten years, we’ve seen other automatic identification technologies to achieve the same sorts of process reliability.

Another historical IoT use case is to use device data to tell operators when machines need maintenance. This could be as simple as a forklift whose battery needs to be charged, to something more complex, like a highly automated conveyor whose ball bearings need lubrication or replacement.

Material handling systems are a natural generator of sensor data.  The leading material handling conference in North America is called ProMat.  ProMat is going on this week.  At ProMat, a startup called SensorThink had its coming out party. IoT will cause companies to look for platforms for leveraging IoT data.  The SensorThink platform includes a warehouse control system, a digital platform for capturing IoT data, and Cloud analytics for analyzing the data.

The digital platform collects the IoT data, cleanses it, and harmonizes it (there is one common data schema for storing this data).  The data can come from material handling systems, lift truck sensors, building automation systems – which control the temperature and humidity of buildings, and security systems. The platform can that uses messaging technology to distribute relevant messages to the appropriate systems and people. IoT generates massive amounts of data.  SensorThink compresses this data stream by only collecting change of state data.

Eric Peters, a serial entrepreneur with long roots in warehouse software, is the cofounder and CEO of the company. Mr. Peters calls this “a digital platform for the connected warehouse.” He believes one initial use case with good return will be from smart lighting and building temperature control.

In Europe, they refer to IoT as Industry 4.0. While doing research for our annual global warehouse management system (WMS) market study, which has just been released, I talked to Bernd Stöger, a Software Product Manager, at Knapp. Knapp offers material handling solutions, warehouse control systems (WCS) and WMS. “Topics like Big Data, IoT, Industrie 4.0,” Mr. Stöger stated, “lead to a need for an increasing degree of integration between WMS and other systems like WCS and machine control, but also supply chain execution and ERP. We are seeing new potential for analytics and optimization.”

Inconso’s Jarrett Leesch echoed Mr. Stöger’s comments.  Mr. Leesch is a Vice President International Business Development at Inconso.  “Europe is more automated than the US. Key logistic shows in Europe, like Bundesvereinigung Logistik (BVL) and LogiMAT, are far ahead of North America’s material handling shows in covering IoT.”

Inconso, a logistics software house, is owned by Körber AG. Körber is a holding company that owns several automation and material handling firms. Each of these companies is independent. But Körber does have a technology center so that every company in the group can cross pollinate ideas.  IoT is a big focus of this center.  Inconso, as the software arm, pulls together the hardware sensor data for maintenance and advanced scheduling.

Inconso has been a supplier of warehouse management and control systems (WMS and WCS).  Their WMS gathers the data on just where the material handling devices are in the warehouse and how they are being used. By gathering this kind of information, their warehouse management solution is in a better position even to do advanced routing on the warehouse floor.

Inconso also does a great deal of work in the polymer chemical industry. Mr. Leesch explained that “in the Polymer industry, we can take signals from extruders and use that data to make decisions, including routing decisions.  For example, if an extrusion machine sensor shows the grade of material produced is not the correct one, the software can automatically – without human participation – alert the customer that there is no way their order will arrive on time.”

The warehouse management system can then be used to reschedule the delivery. While the WCS does not control extrusion, the sensor data is used to inform forklift and automated guided vehicle (AGV) task allocation and scheduling.  If a key production machine is down, for example, there is no need for an AGV to go to that machine and pick up the goods.

“In the automotive industry,” Mr. Leesch said, “just in time (JIT) and just in sequence are supported with IoT.”  Real time signals coming from the production floor help keep JIT/just in sequence working smoothly.  If a machine goes done, the software can automatically change when raw materials are delivered to lines without a person making these decisions.”

While IoT is not new, the recent buzz has led to more investments in this area. That is all to the good.

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