“Alexa, How Do I Automate a Warehouse or Distribution Center?”
Written by: Craig Rother, Solutions Engineering Executive at AHS
Hasn’t the Internet always been comprised of things? In a sense, sure. Websites were created to inform things, sell things, and convey things. But now the Internet of Things (IoT) is a system with its own abbreviation, meaning, and applications. Wikipedia defines IoT as “…a system of interrelated computing devices, mechanical and digital machines, objects, animals, or people that are provided with unique identifiers (UIDs) and the ability to transfer data over a network without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction”. In other words, instead of the Internet being used to inform, sell, and convey information to human readers/buyers/users through websites, the Internet is comprised of devices talking to each other without any human involvement.
You probably use an IoT device every day and just don’t know it. I was in my car today and said: “Alexa, play The Beatles.” Alexa replied, “shuffling songs by The Beatles.” Music begins playing through my car stereo. What happened behind the scenes for Alexa to initiate that response? In a nutshell, An Amazon Echo Auto device that’s connected to my phone via Bluetooth heard my command and translated it into data. My phone (which is connected to the Internet) is also connected to the car's audio system by Bluetooth. After the Amazon Echo Auto device translated my command into data using the internet, it transferred that data to my phone and triggered the Amazon Music app to open. The behind-the-scenes interaction and translation between all these devices define the Internet of Things.
IoT in Warehousing and DistributionIoT is not a solution on its own. You can’t call your integrator and ask for “one of those Internet of Things for my warehouse operations.” A combination of connected devices, a WES/WMS software system, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things is required for companies to see benefit from such applications in their operations. Let’s start with connected devices. The Amazon Echo Auto I mentioned earlier is a connected device—it connects to my phone. What are some connected devices that we might see in a distribution facility? (1.) A variety of sensors. These sensors track items down to each level and provide real-time visibility by being connected to IoT. (2.) Software to analyze and visualize the inventory statistics on a monitor. Either a standalone cloud-based analytics software or more traditionally a WES/WMS (warehouse execution system/warehouse management system). WES is a somewhat new term but can be defined quite simply. Think of it as a traditional WMS but with the capability of managing not only your inventory but also managing and optimizing your labor resources and equipment. WES, WMS, or a combination of the two serve as a gateway to your real-time visibility as outputted by the sensors (connected devices). A WES takes it a step further by using that data outputted by the sensors to optimize the operations of equipment and people.
Now that you have real-time visibility of your operation, how can that data be streamlined to improve efficiency, speed, and decision-making? The answer is Artificial intelligence (AI). AI-based learning is taking over the responsibility of automatically analyzing data to identify trends and generate predictive analyses. One specific example of this in a distribution center is the ability to predict orders. Using the predictive analysis generated by AI, managers can apply resources to pick and pack orders before customers have a chance to place them. The analytics from the AI can tell you how many orders of a particular SKU or SKU combinations will be placed on a given day. Discovering the tools and striking the correct balance between these next-gen solutions can set your distribution operations apart from the competition.
Through AHS’s strategic partnerships, we offer “Smart Distribution” solutions through software, AI, IoT, and connected devices. The time is now to learn more about how advanced technologies can improve your supply chain efficiency.
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