Dan Barrera, Segment Manager, Carter Intralogistics
Mark Duncan, Marketing Manager of Material Handling Industry OEM North America Operations, Schneider Electric
Evan Kaiser, Industry Director of Warehousing and Logistics, Rockwell Automation
Divya Prakash, Director of Business Consulting, Industry 4.0, SICK Inc.
Sebastian Titze, Manager of Digital Transformation, Beumer Group
The complexity of today’s distribution centers is increasing rapidly due to new technologies and higher demands from consumers. Conveyors and sortation systems within those facilities can help provide users with a competitive advantage by leveraging technologies to improve throughput, accuracy, and efficiency.
DC Velocity Group Editorial Director David Maloney recently gathered five experts who are all members of MHI’s Conveyor and Sortation Solutions Group (CSS)—an industry body that promotes the effective use of conveyor and sortation systems in manufacturing and distribution operations—for a deeper dive into the benefits of these new technologies. What follows are excerpts from their discussion.
Q: What has changed in recent years that allows companies to leverage big data more effectively than in the past?
Sebastian Titze – Beumer: For quite some years, we have been able to collect a lot of data, but what has changed is the infrastructure to stream large amounts of data to structure them in real time—or near real time—and in that way, make them usable for companies. We are not just collecting data, but have also made the leap to actually generating insights that allow companies to analyze their operations and make decisions based on what they know, not what they think or assume.
Q: What types of issues do we see with conveyors and sortation systems that could benefit from better data analytics and predictive analysis?
Mark Duncan – Schneider Electric: Any type of conveyor and sortation equipment maintenance begins with the motor. If the motor is not functioning properly, nothing else is going to work. In addition to that, we see misalignment with the belt, belt slippage, tension control. Sometimes, the rollers would seize up or you would have blockages or jams due to package interference or motor failure due to bearings, windings, or rotors.
Q: The idea of Industry 4.0 is promising, but real-world examples of successes have been limited. Why are companies struggling to achieve the results that are promised by Industry 4.0 solutions?
Evan Kaiser – Rockwell Automation: A lot of times, customers are trying to take on the world with data instead of being more specific and focused on a particular problem where the information can be utilized to drive a particular result. They do more than what they should out of the gate and then end up frustrated because there is so much complexity in what they’re trying to implement that it doesn’t get the result they’re driving toward. The biggest successes I have seen are companies that have focused on a particular point in the operation that could really benefit from analytics and then scale up from there.
Q: What data from conveyors and sortation systems should be monitored and analyzed?
Dan Barrera – Carter Intralogistics: That depends on what the ultimate goal is. We initially can say speed, current, torque, position, temperature, faults, and whether the system is on or off. All of these variables allow us to make decisions and understand more of what production looks like. It also allows us to understand where the bottlenecks are. However, a lot of these variables are going to depend on the business model you are developing that will be part of your digital transformation. In some cases, it comes down to just keeping the system up and running, and minimizing the disruption.
Q: How do you see digital transformation being carried out within DCs?
Divya Prakash – SICK: Digital transformation has to be a business driver. The distribution center really is going through hyper-acceleration, with e-commerce forcing companies to change their fulfillment strategies and find a perfect omnichannel model. Getting the raw data is not an issue because every sensor is getting smarter, but getting the raw data and applying analytics to it is what digital transformation is all about. There are a lot of disruptive technologies coming into the whole DC area, so it is not just investing in conveyors. There is automation, drones, 5G, robotics, autonomous vehicles, AMRs, AgVs. I mean, there is a lot of stuff coming in that’s transforming the whole distribution center.
Q: What are some of the risks of data analytics?
Sebastian Titze – Beumer: I think many companies perceive the risk to be fairly high, although if you think about it, data analytics really just accesses data from the machine and the sensors, so there is really a very low risk to the machine’s operation. Of course, there is always the risk of data security. But if you consider how many companies nowadays store their emails in the cloud and so on, that risk [from machine data] is not much higher than other business risks. I don’t want to downplay that risk; however, the potential of data analytics and the opportunities it brings greatly outweigh those risks.
Q: What are the real consequences when conveyor and sortation systems go down?
Mark Duncan – Schneider Electric: I have seen statistics indicating that 46% of unplanned downtime is due to hardware failure and malfunction. We heard recently that 80% of companies have experienced some type of downtime over the past three years, and 70% of those are unaware that their assets need maintenance or an upgrade. The material handling equipment in the average distribution center or warehouse is 15.6 years old. That sets up a legitimate business case to put in some analytics to prevent downtime. We have seen customers show us that [the cost of] downtime can average up to $160,000 an hour if it is unplanned, so the impact of downtime is significant, especially in e-commerce and other facilities that run 24/7.
Q: Can you define the term “digital twin” and explain what value and benefits this technology can unlock?
Evan Kaiser – Rockwell Automation: A digital twin is a virtual rendering of the real world. It is a new way of engineering because you can move into this virtual world and test things and experiment with different scenarios. You can manipulate a design very easily without needing any physical investments in material. The digital twin can enable error reductions, improve your time to market, and reduce commission time for complex systems. A digital twin scales very well and can be applied to a specific machine or across the entire operation.
Q: What are some of the benefits of interfacing your conveyors and sorters with other technologies?
Dan Barrera – Carter Intralogistics: This is what management is going to be looking for, right? When we talk about digital transformation, utilization, and cloud computing, they are all thinking about return on their investment. The goal is to increase productivity based on data. This will lead to improved quality, increased uptime, and decreased cost. From this, we can also create value or benefits not only on the production side but also on the engineering side of the system, all the way down to the after-sale support.
Q: What disruptive technology do you see impacting DC operations in the future?
Divya Prakash – SICK: Down on the distribution floor, decisions have to be made much faster as conveyors are moving at higher speeds, but there is often a lag between the cloud and the shop floor. Modern-day sensors have microchips and a lot more computing power. The sensors are not just sensing but also thinking. You will see smart sensors eliminating some of the latency and bringing some of the computing power down to the edge. You’ll see these sensors directly doing analytics and some kinds of computing, providing you with alerts or even predictive analyses.
Editor’s note: MHI’s Conveyor and Sortation Systems (CSS) industry group is an independent authority for end-users and suppliers on market trends, technology developments, and applications. The group consists of over 30 leading companies in the conveyor and sortation systems market with experience from thousands of projects. For more information on the group’s work and a list of CSS members, visit www.mhi.org/css.