As industry supply chains become more global and more complex, it behooves stakeholders to seek out ways to work with greater efficiency, reduce errors, increase equipment lifetime, and simply do more with fewer resources. Thus, a revolution is happening in many industries — including materials handling — as they align supply chain management and material handling practices with Industrial Internet of Things (IoT) solutions.
In Industrial IoT applications (sometimes referred to as IIoT applications), physical objects have been made “smart” with the addition of sensors and other technologies. These sensors can collect data, which is then transmitted, wirelessly, and automatically, to cloud-based computer networks. Data can then be analyzed by software to help human operators make more informed decisions about those objects. Increasingly, it’s the objects themselves that are making the decisions.
These technologies are quickly pervading many aspects of our daily lives: Most Americans already interact regularly with smart technologies when they work, shop, travel, or relax at home.
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Those working in materials handling are increasingly interacting with Industrial IoT solutions while on the job. The impact of and potential for the technology are significant. As stated in a 2018 article in Wired Magazine:
The IIoT can transform traditional, linear manufacturing supply chains into dynamic, interconnected systems — a digital supply network (DSN) — that can more readily incorporate ecosystem partners. As key enablers of DSNs, IIoT technologies help to change the way that products are made and delivered, making factories more efficient, ensuring better safety for human operators, and, in some cases, saving millions of dollars.
Specifically, the Industrial IoT offers a range of advantages in material handling.
If a machine fails, sensors can pinpoint the problem and make a service request. Better yet, data from sensors on materials handling machinery — which detect things such as vibrations, sound, and temperature — can drive predictive analytics that can help operators understand the maintenance needs to schedule service more effectively in advance.
The Wired article explains how one company used predictive maintenance to improve its production equipment uptime. The outcome? It avoided a $25 million expense to build another line to keep up with demand.
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) in manufacturer stockrooms, warehouses, and distribution centers can collaborate with human workers to make workflows more efficient. One manufacturer’s AMR, for example, guides workers through a series of material picks in a way that minimizes travel and makes optimal use of the robot’s carrying capacity. The AMR then takes the material to a station for pack out. Over time, the cloud software to which the AMR is connected may recommend ways to reorganize product inventory for further efficiency gains.
One forklift OEM offers telematics data that gives operators insights into how the vehicles are being used — how much are they driven, where they are driven, how much time they spend loading or unloading docked trucks, how often are they driven loaded or unloaded, etc. With this data in hand, operators and managers can make more informed decisions about fleet deployment and size.
IoT-enabled, self-driving forklifts, and pallet jacks can handle tasks that might be difficult or dangerous for humans. Predictive maintenance (see above) can help avoid breakdowns that often lead to worker injury.
Sensors placed on pallets, in a product container, or on products themselves can track factors such as temperature, impact, and vibration. Any of this information may be critical, depending on the product. Those sensors can then transmit this information to the cloud to be accessed by stakeholders along the value chain.
Sensors can also be used to track the location and predict arrival times of shipments, to better coordinate and plan last-mile delivery.
Some industry observers believe that the proliferation of Industrial IoT solutions will lead to an increase in the leasing of high-value equipment. Such equipment will be outfitted with sensors and networked. The manufacturer can then monitor remotely, to automatically (and efficiently) deliver maintenance and service. This allows the lessee to focus on its core business, rather than worry about equipment maintenance.
A webinar presented by the Materials Handling Industry of America pointed to the key challenges related to Industrial IoT applications. The primary ones relate to uncontrolled access to and misuse of IoT data—not necessarily for malicious intent, but misuse that can cause damage or injury nevertheless — along with true cyber threats.
These and other challenges reveal what’s referred to in the webinar as a root need for collaboration between IT and operations. The aim should be not only developing better security systems but a long-term management approach that ensures software is updated and maintained regularly.
Industrial IoT solutions hold tremendous promise to transform manufacturing and logistics. A key part of this transformation will be the widespread adoption of “smart” material handling equipment and systems that provide data to help operators create more efficiency, better use resources, improve worker safety, ensure product quality, and improve shipping.
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This article was contributed by the Fluid and Gas Handling Team
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