Autonomy and beyond: optimisation and new business
Moving items to and from a storage facility can be done by tracking every item itself: Attach and fix a tracking device, i.e. an Active RFID tag, and it will report its position when moved, saving battery by only transmitting when in motion. Every item can at any time be located through its tag.
Alternatively, track all equipment which can move the item: Register the initial position of the item and keep track of who and what manipulates it – from where to where. A laser-guided forklift adds a measurement of the fork’s height above the floor. Every item has an identification code, e.g. a bar code, and initially registered on its horizontal coordinates and height where it is picked up from – then tracked to the stack position and height at the storage, where it is subsequently placed. The forklift in this example is tracked; not the item itself. Yet at the end of the operation the item’s position is updated in the inventory list.
Autonomous or Centralised control
AGV – Autonomous Guided Vehicles will take over many tasks currently handled by manual operators. A storage facility, container terminal, trailer parking lot can be automated and centrally controlled. If no human interference or random persons are allowed inside the perimeter, the system will operate automatically from input to output.
Full autonomy in an open environment has still some way to go. The automotive industry autonomy level definitions – where level 0 is a fully manually driven vehicle – describes at the far end of the scale level 5 as “the full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions that can be managed by a human driver” [Wikipedia].
Learn from best practice
Which methods are being applied in adjacent businesses within asset management, yard management, healthcare inventory tracking? If finding a certain part is critical for the operation, it may be worth the cost of adding a tracking unit. CPH Airport uniquely tracks the position of those steel rods used for pushing aircrafts off the apron as delay may cost a slot time for departure.
Will manufacturing competitors have a leading edge on only cost of operations or also by the ability to reshape the business model by introducing make-to-order shifting manual repetition or endless conveyer belt operations to flexible robotics and autonomously driven vehicles on the factory floor? The automotive industry increasingly follows Dell Computers’ inventory less manufacturing: No stock of last year’s colour now being totally wrong.
Automating even more parts of the product or logistics will generate enormous amounts of data; data which can be examined and may reveal areas for further optimisation. A company having manually driven forklifts assisted by a fully automated inventory based on coordinates in 3 dimensions of all items, registering pick-up and put-down automatically, have reduced operational costs significantly at their warehouse.
Moreover, no items disappear by faulty handling or the operator having missed registering the transaction.
Plenty of proven and operational automation technologies exist to track and steer equipment and goods. The challenge is selecting the optimal method to balance up-front investment and operational cost – while providing ample business opportunities to separate from competition and assuring the instalment is not leading to a dead end as technologies further mature.
Senior Advisor Jesper Meulengracht, firstname.lastname@example.org, +45 70 23 50 05