As warehouses and distribution centers continue to go high-tech, the tools used to design them are following suit with advances that make it easier for companies to predict how their operation will evolve to meet changing business demands over time. Conveyor simulation technology offers a case in point, shifting from a tool that simply shows how a conveyor system will work into one that can help companies plan the best system to meet peak service demands, ever-later order-cutoff times, and the staffing requirements to handle such changes. The software programs used to simulate conveyor system design today use advanced algorithms and data analytics to produce those results, and experts say the added use of sensors and Internet of Things technology is evolving to help produce real-time replicas of physical systems (think "digital twin" technology) that can provide organizations with even more productivity-enhancing data.
"Today, a customer can expect to see a lot more [from conveyor simulation] than just 'does the system work?'" explains Luther Webb, vice president, data science at material handling solutions provider Trew LLC. "[We have] more advanced modeling written in advanced code form. Today, [in a simulated design] the customer is looking at various formulas built into a model, and those formulas are interacting with each other."
The end result is a dynamic model of conveyor technology that is helping organizations maximize throughput and minimize labor costs.
"When you think about warehousing, it's about space, equipment, labor, and controls," says Michael Wohlwend, managing principal at material handling systems integrator Alpine Supply Chain Solutions. He adds that companies must maximize those four assets in order to ensure their warehouse or DC runs as efficiently as possible. "We're using [conveyor] simulation software to look at how you are going to optimize all of those things," he adds. "Our customers are asking us for designs that will help them improve overall throughput and reduce overall labor costs."
CHANGING TO MEET EVOLVING NEEDS
Systems integrators and equipment suppliers use conveyor simulation technology to develop and present solutions to customers, a mission that has not changed much since the technology first entered widespread use in the 1990s, Webb and others say. But customers are looking for more than just proof that a system works, and thanks to technology advances, today's software programs allow engineers and designers to deliver that information. Today's customers seek three key benefits of conveyor simulation, according to Webb: confidence that a proposed system will do the job; the ability to evaluate a proposed system's performance under changing conditions; and the ability to test and adjust operations, particularly staffing levels, as needs change.
"We talk about the customer's long-term expectation for the model" when working on a new project, explains Webb, adding that a customer may want to prove that a concept will work under specific conditions or test how it will respond to peak [volumes] or other complex situations in the warehouse or DC. "[Customers] also may want a model of the system that they can use long term to test daily scenarios. For example, they may want to run through the model every night with the next day's orders [to get answers to questions like]: Will I finish early? Do I need more people?"
The advent of "agent-based modeling" techniques is helping customers respond to those more complex and unpredictable environments, Webb and others add. Traditionally, engineers and system designers have used discrete-event modeling, which simulates the operation of a system as an individual series of events and times, and is ideal for processes that are predefined and in which interactions are basically linear, Webb explains. In contrast, agent-based modeling allows system designers to model the actions and interactions of separate processes in the system and how they will interact with each other. This allows designers to model and see unexpected behaviors as the agents interact with and influence the system, he adds. Companies using warehouse execution systems (WES), which connect disparate warehouse systems and functions in one platform, may benefit from such advances. Webb cites the order-release and picking processes as examples.
"As order releases are optimized based on a set of rules, the picking agent [software] will optimize based on its own set of rules," Webb explains. "As the models interact over time, you can discover outcomes you did not predict in a linear model."
Wohlwend agrees that advanced software and modeling techniques are making it easier to help customers plan for variations in demand—especially as organizations implement later order-cutoff times and faster delivery options.
"With the new demands from customers—especially for same- or next-day delivery—it requires us to use [more sophisticated] data and simulation tools to create an optimal design," he says.
NEXT UP: DIGITAL TWINS
The growing connectedness of today's warehouses and DCs is driving one of the biggest changes on the technology horizon: the use of digital twins. A digital twin is a virtual replica of a real object—a product, structure, facility, or system, according to technology research firm Gartner Inc., which released a study last year on businesses' use—and planned use—of digital-twin technology. The study found that, globally, nearly half of manufacturing organizations that were implementing Internet of Things strategies in 2018 were using or planned to use digital twins and that the number of firms doing so would triple by 2022. Webb says customers are increasingly interested in ways to use digital twins for conveyor system simulation because they offer a tool that can be used to test scenarios in real time.
"The level of detail we're able to provide is growing, [including] statistical information that can show when [a system] begins to reach challenges and how we can address those challenges," Webb explains. "This makes the concept of the digital twin very interesting to customers."
The Gartner study also showed that by next year, at least half of manufacturing firms with annual revenues of more than $5 billion will have at least one digital-twin initiative launched for either products or assets.
Conveyor system design may be one of them.
"By having a digital twin [of your equipment], it's no longer a stagnant model built for [concept development]," Webb says. "It's living, based on what is in production today—the equipment, processes, people. We can use it in real time."