Visit a modern warehouse and you’ll see robots quickly moving packages, shelves, and entire racks from one location to another. These tireless workers help keep operational costs low and efficiency high.
Warehouse operations are turning to automation to use existing floor space more effectively and to improve overall operational efficiency—and machine vision is powering even greater productivity. When combined with intelligent cameras, robots can sort packages by designation, size, and weight; carry and store packages anywhere in the warehouse, and automatically update inventory systems.
The benefits of greater automation have not escaped China’s central government’s attention. In the most recent five-year plan, authorities set a target of 100,000 new warehouse robots annually by 2020. That target seems well within reach: Last year alone, the market for industrial robots grew by 30.4%.
Modernizing Warehouse Management Systems
Many of today’s automated machines are stand-alone units such as conveyor systems or shipping sorters. But uncoordinated automation offers limited improvements. To achieve higher operational efficiency, many warehouses are upgrading to warehouse management systems (WMS) that coordinate warehouse automation.
In addition to tying together multiple functional areas, a WMS can provide insights into performance of warehouse operations. Using data analytics, an intelligent WMS platform can help managers identify opportunities for optimization and eliminate inefficiencies.
These platforms help streamline warehouse tasks. By coordinating activities across the floor, a WMS can help operation managers respond quickly to inventory and logistics changes in a stable and repeatable manner. And the benefits extend beyond the warehouse: By integrating with corporate enterprise resource planning (ERP), warehouse automation can improve efficiency across a manufacturer’s operations.
One such solution is Hikvision’s iWarehouse Management System (iWMS), which consists of automated guided vehicles (AGV), a robotics control system (RCS), and iWMS software. Together, the total iWMS platform meets the challenges of warehouse operations by:
- Optimizing warehouse storage through demand analysis of available storage space and automatic shelf adjustments
- Streamlining warehouse management by supporting inventory business processes, like material requisition and procurement
- Gaining total control with flexible management strategies, user-based permission configuration, and warehouse visualization
Coordinating 1,000 Robots
Hikvision’s iWMS platform supports a variety of AGVs that perform various warehouse duties (see Figure 1). “Our robot control system (RCS) can control more than 1,000 robots at the same time,” said Wu Yonghai. “So, as business volume climbs, our clients can put more robots to work. This helps address the problem of unbalanced business growth.”
To guide the robots, the system uses smart cameras powered by Intel® vision processing units (Intel® VPUs) and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs). Among other benefits, these cameras can automatically recognize labels for real-time traceability of every package in the warehouse.
As illustrated in Figure 2, data from the AGVs and smart cameras can be melded together for local analysis using Intel-based industrial PCs (IPCs). From here, data travels to the cloud, where it can be easily integrated with an enterprise ERP system to help facilitate overall project deliveries, expand and maintain follow-on systems, and reduce overall labor costs.
Long-term data storage is provided on the back-end with cloud servers based on Intel® Xeon® processors that also host the iWMS software. Here, central staff can monitor the entire process of warehouse operation flow and offer statistical analysis on the efficiency of warehouse operations.
Together, these capabilities enable warehouse operators to:
- Recommend and adjust shelf positions in real time through current demand analysis of warehouse storage.
- Monitor AGV robot movement with multi-path planning to avoid obstacles and traffic jams.
- Distribute robotic tasks evenly based on constantly updated AGV status.
- Control positioning and movement of AGVs with warehouse visualization based on a warehouse CAD map and RCS model data.
To ensure that all of these decisions are consistent with a business’ goals, iWMS can interface with a corporate ERP. For example, the system can be configured to work with inbound/outbound policies and existing material requisition processes.
Hikvision uses iWMS in its own operations, putting the system to work at its Tonglu factory. This facility, which manufactures video surveillance systems, contains a 120,000-square-meter warehouse with a daily output of US$14.6 million in shipments. Nearly 800 AGVs are online in the facility.
Warehouse robots carry and sort parts and products, then park themselves automatically out of the way under the storage racks when not in use. Smart production logistics is handled through the RCS, which supports multi-robot cluster scheduling for unmanned handling of raw materials via a common work-in-process (WIP) system.
Using iWMS, the Hikvision factory was able to:
- Store raw materials automatically
- Enable intelligent detection during the production process
- Manage and warehouse finished products
- Control equipment intelligently
- Automatically feed the production line with raw materials
- Oversee transit and interim work in process
According to Wu Yonghai, labor costs were reduced by 58% and efficiency improved by 84% after implementing the iWMS solution in 2016. “In the future, we see applications for this system in medical supplies, food, and other multi-storage markets,” he said.
Warehouse operators interested in replicating the success at the Hikvision Tonglu facility in their own warehouses must first work with Hikvision to create a warehouse simulation. The simulation is needed to accurately predict costs to set up the iWMS as well as the time to customize the solution—typically three to eight weeks depending on the size of the warehouse facility.
“Once installed, the payback period for the iWMS is only one to three years,” said Wu Yonghai. “It’s worthwhile in the long run.”
Intel Powers The Partnership
Hikvision found Intel’s technology and industry leadership to be a good match for its ambitious iWMS system. As noted above, the Smart Camera uses Intel® FGPAs and Intel® processors. What’s more, Intel-based PCs and terminals provide a good operating environment for all the software in the intelligent warehouse management solution.
“We would like to incorporate Intel’s sensors and processors into our robots in the future,” explained Wu Yonghai. “Balancing technology and high quality are very necessary. Intel has a good worldwide reputation for both.”
Indeed, a focus on the future is appropriate as China turns to ever more advanced robotic systems to address workforce training and labor cost issues. A smart warehouse management system that includes such an automated workforce can produce amazing results in operational efficiency and cost savings.