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Smart warehouses need availability, simplicity and reliability

Shortages in anything from foodstuff to semiconductors that are needed to make game consoles to cars have become all too common during the uncertain pandemic period.

Even as many countries emerge from the crisis, disruptions to the global supply chain are still happening regularly, whether they are due to a container ship stuck in the Suez Canal or armed conflict in one part of the world.

The United States Federal Reserve Bank’s Global Supply Chain Pressure Index, which reflects global supply chain conditions, reached a peak in December 2021. Though it has been trending down this year, it is still relatively volatile and remains at historical highs.

For any logistics player whose business performance is tied closely to global supply chain performance, the past two years have been a trying period.

Disruptions aside, those involved in warehousing, for example, have had to overcome not just uncertain supply but also growing demand, especially in the eCommerce sector.

The online shopping market is growing at a rapid pace. eCommerce sales in Asia-Pacific are expected to double from 2021 to 2025, reaching USD $2 trillion, according to research company Euromonitor International.

More automated processes

To overcome these obstacles, many logistics and warehouse operators in Asia-Pacific are looking to more advanced and automated processes to raise efficiency and reliability.

Autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) are today a common sight in large warehouses and fulfilment centers, where they can be used to carry items from one part of a facility to another, without human intervention.

Not only do these vehicles reduce human errors, but they also enhance workplace safety by doing the heavy lifting, literally, for human operators.

Also becoming more common are autonomous mobile robots (AMR), which rely on sensors to understand their surroundings and software algorithms to smartly move around a facility. These machines can help boost efficiency by picking and sorting items from the shelves as well.

These smart vehicles come in many forms. Some are like automated trolleys that help carry goods up to 200kg of goods around, for example.

Others come with an arm that grapples or hooks onto carts, towing up to 500kg of goods around a warehouse, freeing up human operators to do other jobs and reducing the need for bulky forklifts.

Digitalisation also means resilience

With all the digital wizardry in place, however, the margin of error for the industrial computing systems controlling these various pieces of the puzzle has to be virtually zero.

In a 24/7 always-on warehouse or logistics center, these autonomous vehicles, robots and sorters need to continue to do their jobs. Otherwise, a delay in delivery can be expected and the supply chain can be further disrupted.

What competitive logistics companies increasingly need today are industrial automation and control systems that can handle mission-critical tasks with minimal downtime. 

Think about the industrial control system (ICS) server managing the autonomous robots or the servers at the very edge of the network, taking in and analysing the data from Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors on the warehouse floor. 

Here, a fleet management system is often needed to make sure the robots move in an optimised and safe manner within a warehouse. At the same time, the right robot has to be assigned the right job. Such a system simply cannot fail. Otherwise logistics companies will not meet their delivery commitment to customers. 

Beside the need for fault tolerance and high availability, these systems also have to be rugged enough for the industrial locations they are deployed in. Just as important, they have to be easy to set up and operate over time without a lot of costly IT expertise. 

With the manpower crunch facing many industries today, the last thing a company wants is to buy a specialised piece of equipment that requires uniquely skilled talent to maintain at a high cost.

The same applies to integration as well. One question that logistics companies have to ask is how easily a fault-tolerant system integrates with their existing industrial control software. 

Does it come pre-tested with the commonly used software platforms utilised by logistics centers, for example? Can the integration be completed in terms of days rather than weeks, so disruption is minimal?

A smarter warehousing future

To be sure, the move towards more automated processes at logistics centers in Asia-Pacific will bring more efficiencies to logistics players, enabling them to gain a critical edge through faster and better fulfilment of orders. Customer service, as key differentiator, will be boosted as a result.

That said, the shift towards automation, with AGVs and AMRs in warehouses, for example, will require industrial control systems that are robust enough to match the 24/7 always-on operations at these facilities.

As competition heats up in the region, logistics players will need to iron out their system reliability faults in these highly autonomous systems. 
They have to prevent common faults, from a memory malfunction to a software glitch, instead of trying to recover from the resultant downtime, which will be very costly.

These systems have to be simple to use, protected from cyber threats or downtime, and autonomous enough to always work without constant monitoring, maintenance, repairs, or support. In other words, the intelligent systems that are controlling the increasingly automated parts of the logistics supply chain and warehouse have to be ready for the digital future or they might add to the already disruptive situation today.

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