We have seen a burst of new technologies in supply chain area. Drones, advance of robots in workplaces, Internet of things (IoT) are becoming a reality. Time is ripe to induce more technology into core operations of supply chain like warehouse operations, yard operations and so on. Here I would like to discuss on how to capitalize advances made in drone technology can add value in warehouse operations. Drones are also personal interest of mine as we had experimented with a small drone in our home few years back.
Traditional warehouse managers have always been looking for ways to improve productivity of the operations and people in warehouse. Drones can significantly improve warehouse operations in the area of inventory management, yard management and safety of the warehouse. Drones can be put into use in
1. Annual stocking: In a warehouse the storage locations and pallets are bar coded. Drone which has a scanner can scan the location to confirm its position then scan the pallet label to confirm the item and quantity. Frequency is yearly and involves the entire warehouse.
2. Cycle counting: Its similar to annual stocking as the operation involves going to location and confirming the item and quantity. Cycle counting involves fewer locations in a warehouse and the frequency is few times a day.
3. Track Trailers in Yard: In large yards its time consuming to identify trailers, drones can be of big help here. They can sent out for "search operations" in a yard and using the camera in the drone operators can hunt for trailers.
Pros for using Drones:
• Increase productivity in physical counting and cycle counting. Productivity can be improved by a factor of 2X or 3X.
• Overcome safety challenges, as taking physical counting in high rack locations involves using both forklifts and humans which increase chances of accidents.
• Drones can perform the work faster and also be more accurate.
• Drones can also be used for searching and finding inventory.
• Drone can also be used for searching trailers / trucks vehicles in large yards of the warehouse.
What type of warehouse can be early adapters for Drones?
Retail, Third party logistics warehouses are ideal for Drones usage. These warehouse are typically large sites, with high rack locations which are bar coded. The warehouse layout is like typical street block with aisles and locations marked.
4 Steps to put Drones in Action:
In order for the warehouse to take advantage of drones following things are necessary
1. For Drones to move independently within the 4 walls of warehouse, the key requirement is to have physical warehouse map with details of all the aisles, rack locations and other details.
For this the crucial input is to have warehouse map which has the co-ordinates of each location. A geodesic survey of the inbound and outbound areas of the warehouse needs to be done. Warehouse map is created with x, y, z co-ordinates of all the locations. Site survey can be accomplished by civil surveyors by working in non-peak or non-work days in 6 to 8 working days. Warehouse physical map is fed into drone software. Drone can navigate using the warehouse co-ordinates. In my previous project implementing Locanis WMS we had enabled Forklift guidance system in a large warehouse.
For Indoor referencing to increase the positional accuracy of the drones we can use beacons. The way I envisage this is we place beacons in aisles and pathways of warehouses. So whenever drones pass these beacons it will publish the exact positional co-ordinates which can be then be used for navigation.
2. Drone needs to be equipped with a scanner which can scan various bar codes stickers of different bar code standards like EAN, UCC.
3. Once the drone scans the data it needs to communicate to the WMS system or a custom software which can capture the location and inventory.
4. Drones need to communicate using a different frequency, as warehouse have other equipment's like forklift terminals, Hand held terminals, RFID devices using Wi-Fi.
Challenges for Drone usage:
• Drones can be used for inventory management functions in Full pallet areas. Using them in Carousels, multi deep pallet locations, Pigeons holes are going to be challenge.
• Warehouses which do primarily Cross docking, Break pack are also not suitable for drone operations. As the inventory is fast moving and mostly in ground locations.
• In order for drones to work in warehouse operations we need to have robust "anti-avoidance" technology. This is an important factor when drones and humans have to work in the same environment.
4 steps for inducting drones as discussed above can form the basis of inducting drones into warehouse operations. In the near future we would be seeing more drones in warehouse working along with humans. Pretty soon I think we will see "Drone operator" as one of the job titles in warehouses across the world. Welcome to the world of warehouse drones!