By Juliane Friedrich
Intralogistics is already struggling to meet the demand of production companies to have the components they need delivered faster and more flexibly - and the transformation that digitalization will bring has only just begun. Production methods in industry are still two-dimensional, and it is easy to see how a product is created. Production lines determine the direction and speed. This was the best solution in the age of mass production, but that will no longer be the case in the future.
"From above, it will just look like vehicles moving about at random," predicts Uwe Schildheuer, Managing Director at Torwegge Intralogistics GmbH & Co. KG. "The actions now follow a different plan." The approach of the Bielefeld-based intralogistics specialist is to try new concepts. One scenario shows two vehicles moving through a warehouse at the same time: As their task cannot be completed by one vehicle alone, they coordinate with one another. While one vehicle brings the shelf, the other moves to picking. Each vehicle carries all the intelligence. A command level can be activated to coordinate multiple vehicles. The system is so open than even manned forklifts and other devices can be incorporated.
Torwegge believes this system heralds a new era in intralogistics. "We need to get ready for a crazy world in the future," stresses Schildheuer. "It will be marked by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and we need to learn to manage the coincidences this brings." For example, when a welding robot is needed, it will "simply be called to complete its task," says the Torwegge boss.
"Rigid factories that cannot be adapted or scaled are already obsolete," says Roman Schnabl, Director Product Management at Knapp AG. "The trend toward goods-to-person solutions, which is already familiar from warehouses, is continuing in smart production." In an age of batch sizes of one, reducing complexity is especially important - including for global logistics.
The shuttle with OSR (order storage and retrieval) technology can bring new simplicity to the diversity of goods, supporting high picking performance in an efficient and ergonomic way. For Knapp, it is clear that the smart warehouse and smart factory are now inseparable. "The supply chain is turning into a value chain," says Schnabl.
So will the factory eventually need no people at all? "That is a definite no," says Schnabl. "Of course the level of automation will increase, but we will still need people for coordination and control." In the future, huge flexibility will be needed in terms of fields of use. "Customers want scalability to keep their options for the future open, as it is no longer possible to plan years in advance," explains Schnabl. Knapp sees the openness of the systems as an opportunity to create transparency, with data and information technology (IT) moving into the spotlight.
Using local intelligence
Local intelligence is needed to manage complex supply chains and the ever-growing flood of data for executing logistics processes. The use of autonomous systems is ideal when there is a lot of local data that cannot be transmitted in full and is only relevant for local decisions. "For example, a driverless transport system can decide for itself which order to do first," explains Dr. Anne Meyer from the FZI Research Center for Information Technology in Karlsruhe. "We call this encapsulating complexity."
In other cases, however, purely local decision-making leads to a disadvantageous use of resources. For example, if the production unit itself chooses the machine on which it is processed, it might block the very machine that is needed for a high-priority unit. Higher-level coordination is important here. "We do not yet have the right methods to tell us which level of decentralization is right in which situation," says Meyer, "but it is a question we need to answer."
Making communication more intuitive
One idea for picking in the future is for the vehicle and operator to form a team. At Still GmbH in Hamburg, the autonomous picking vehicle is seen as an "intelligent teammate" for intralogistics solutions. The vehicle has been enhanced with a range of technologies to give it particular skills. "It is an autonomous vehicle," explains Erik Duewel, Product Manager Autonomous Trucks at Still. "That is not the same as an automated vehicle." What makes the vehicles autonomous is not the fact that they can detect objects and their surroundings, but the decision-making behind it, he says. Communication between people and machines will become even more intuitive and work without the use of language, for example through gestures, facial expressions, or symbols.
As production changes, those involved throughout the supply chain will have to adapt. Additive production, for example, is fast catching up with traditional production. According to a study by ING Bank N.V., it will be possible to manufacture half of all products using 3D printing in the next twenty years.
Deutsche Bahn AG is preparing for this. They began two years ago and hope to have additively produced 15,000 parts by the end of the year, having achieved 2,000 in 2017. "The first safety-related parts are already installed in our trains," reveals Stefanie Brickwede, Project Manager at Deutsche Bahn and Managing Director in the Mobility goes Additive network launched by Deutsche Bahn. The range has changed a lot since its modest start with a coat hook. Part of the braking system contains a titanium component that can be produced additively. "Titanium is cheaper to print than steel," says Brickwede. This is due to the fact that titanium powder can be laser welded more quickly. Print on demand reduces transport flows and makes warehouses less important.
Increasing efficiency in materials handling
The classic warehouse is under threat, and the storage system is changing. Customer expectations are also changing, reducing planning timescales significantly. As a result, an efficient materials handling is essential, even though many companies still use silo thinking. "For production, the warehouse is a black box with many unknowns, and intralogistics thinks its job is done as soon as the wire-mesh pallet is placed at the door of production," observes Dr. Harald Goebel, Managing Director of Viastore Software GmbH. Therefore, providers of intralogistics solutions are now faced with the task of connecting these two worlds. Warehouse 4.0 is sure to use even more automation, predicts the Viastore Software boss. "And driverless transport systems will bring the goods to the production site."