The Impact of Emerging Technology and Drone Application on Warehousing

Written by Helmi Salleh, MSIPMM

by Helmi Salleh, MSIPMM

The Impact of Emerging Technology and Drone Application on Warehousing

Written by Helmi Salleh, MSIPMM

by Helmi Salleh, MSIPMM

by Helmi Salleh, MSIPMM

In the recent past, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) were most often associated with the military, where they were used initially for anti-aircraft target practice, intelligence gathering and then, more controversially, as weapons platforms.

Drones are now also used in a wide range of civilian roles ranging from search and rescue, surveillance, traffic monitoring, weather monitoring and firefighting to personal drones and business drone-based photography, as well as videography, agriculture and even delivery services.

A drone, in a technological context, is an unmanned aircraft. Drones are more formally known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or unmanned aircraft systems (UASs). Essentially, a drone is a flying robot. The aircrafts may be remotely controlled or can fly autonomously through software-controlled flight plans in their embedded systems working in conjunction with on board sensors and GPS.

Drone in a warehouse

The diagram above shows the application of a drone in a warehouse (Schofield, 2016)

Application of Drones

1. Inventory management
Drones can help warehouses update and coordinate their inventory management databases in several ways. Some heavy duty drones are able to help transport packages between warehouses to help meet local or even regional demand without relying on trucking. There are also developments in drone technology that include attaching barcode scanners to flying drones, allowing them to update inventory logs at a greater rate than human workers can and can even do so overnight.

2. Claims and returns
A customer dissatisfied with a product may no longer have to trek to the post office to return it, or require a truck to come by their home and add to the area’s traffic congestion drones will eventually be dispatched directly to the customer to pick up an unwanted item. Retailers could use heavier duty drones to return entire damaged pallets as well.

3. Store to customer
The long-term for drone use, as mentioned above, is using them to deliver directly to the customer. Perhaps the customer orders online, or perhaps they visit an in-store location and have their purchase delivered to them at home later that day. We already have the technology and logistics to facilitate same-day delivery, drones will only make that process easier and faster.

Drones in the Warehouse

Drones are seemingly been pulled from the pages of science fiction and made reality. Handy for a wide variety of applications, drones are set to make appearances in warehouses globally as firms seek to further increase levels of automation.

Drone operating in a warehouse

The diagram above shows a drone operating in a warehouse. (Image extracted from https://loaddelivered.blob.core.windows.net)

Drones can aid with tasks that could require a large number of man-hours. One such use is for barcode scanning, according to drone specialists Drone Scan. Warehouses are often stacked to the roof with inventory. This makes certain barcodes tricky to reach and could require the use of a forklift, cage and staff to scan them.

Benefits of Drones in Intra-Logistics Efficiency

Logistics industry have always held on to the most traditional ways of transporting goods which incorporate both extra workforce and cost. Further, it depends on various other factors which cause unwanted delays even when the user is ready to pay for same-day-delivery! Incorporating drones, in this case, would make the delivery service faster and more convenient without the use of workforce! If one were to keep aside the horde of legal formalities to launch drone deliveries and the different permission and licensing hassles the companies must go through, one could not overlook the benefits offered by these aerial devices.

Drone delivery

The diagram above shows a drone delivery. (Bisht, 2017)

UAVs could play a vital role in intra-logistics. Consider the automotive industry with its massive production sites, just-in-time processes, and mind-boggling cost of idle production lines: UAVs could support intra-plant transport as well as the supplier-to-plant emergency deliveries which are typically performed by helicopter today.

Large-scale mining areas could also profit from the on-site express delivery of items that are crucial to maintaining operations such as the delivery of tools, machine parts, and lubricants. UAVs are easy to deploy and can follow pre-defined flight paths, so there is no requirement for specially trained personnel to launch and fly them.

As long as system operations are limited to private premises only, the organization has to deal with minimal regulatory boundaries and privacy concerns. The most significant limitation for intra-logistics is the payload issue.
Smaller, affordable UAVs are still disappointingly expensive, and large unmanned helicopters almost rival their manned counterparts in terms of cost, maintenance, and infrastructure requirements, eliminating their major advantages. Another imaginable intra-logistics application is the use of UAVs inside the warehouse environment for more flexible and accessible high-bay storage.

Stocktaking the Physical Inventory in the Warehouse

When conducting stocktake (inventory), staff are traditionally lifted up to the high shelves using a forklift, reach truck or scissor lift, where they manually scan each barcode and pallet.

This process is time consuming, costly, dangerous and energy inefficient. A drone scanning system provides a revolutionary, robotic solution to scanning products and pallets in warehouses.

The drone allows for airborne capturing of data while the operator receives live feedback as it scans. Inspecting the condition of products or verifying the contents of pallets can be easily achieved as the drone is also fitted with a camera.

A high visibility display is mounted at an angle on the drone, providing instant feedback of the BIN location, incremental scan number, battery life and information about the scanned item, this allows the operator to focus on the drone without needing to glance down at the tablet.

The drone also emits an audible beep and flashes a light as a scan success indicator. The tablet is pre-loaded with status and reconciliation reports and the operator can view and export them at any time.

drone for inventory scanning in a warehouse

The diagram above shows the use of drone for inventory scanning in a warehouse. (Image extracted from http://i2.cdn.cnn.com)

Conclusion

There are many obstacles in the use of seamless drones in the warehouse. These include reducing obstacles like support pillars, creating uniform shelf height and width to regulate drone movement, removing “barcode clutter”, improving drone battery power, or devising ways for drones to charge themselves during down time.

There are also new safety measures to account for numerous flying robots that populate the warehouse. The goal of “continuous inventory,” an inventory management process that never stops, even for working hours, requires the help of powerful drones, and thus finding answers to these issues.

Drones will soon revolutionize warehouses. This will be up to companies to capitalize on this emerging trend by keeping up with automated inventory management, without alienating the human workforce that helped get them to this point.


References:

Bisht, S. (2017). “Drone Delivery, Evolution in the field of Logistics Industry”. Retrieved from https://www.shiprocket.in, accessed 31/08/2017/

DHL (2014). “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle in Logistics”. Retrieved from
http://www.dhl.com, accessed on 31/08/2017.

ITE Transport & Technology. (2016). “10 Warehousing Tech Innovations from around the World”. Retrieved from http://www.transport-exhibitions.com, accessed on 31/08/2017.

Rouse, M. (2016). “Drone – Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, UAV”. Retrieved from
http://internetofthingsagenda.techtarget.com, accessed 31/08/2017.

Schofield, J. (2016). “What Do Drones Mean for the future of Warehouses?”. Retrieved from http://www.systemid.com, accessed 31/08/2017.

About the Author: Helmi Salleh has substantive years of experience in the field of warehouse and logistics management. He is a qualified member of Singapore Institute of Purchasing and Materials Management (MSIPMM). He is currently completing a course on Diploma in Logistics and Supply Management (DLSM) at SIPMM Academy.

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