Warehouse 4.0: Smart tech brings transparency to global supply chain

warehouse 1Under bright fluorescent lights, only a slight whirring sound could be heard as the Swift robot turned a corner and glided down the neatly arranged aisle, packed 10 feet high with drug store items. Having sensed the correct spot, Swift – a white pillar on hidden wheels and a single quadruple-articulated mechanical arm – stopped short, rose a few feet on its column and reached out with its robot arm to swiftly but precisely grab a box of allergy medicine, using a suction cup on the tip of its “finger.” Then, in one fluid motion, Swift pulled the arm back and gently placed the item in a blue bin resting in the robot’s midsection.

This simple distribution center pick, multiplied by millions, is the future of the US$4 trillion logistics industry – or at least it may be, after these first baby steps toward true pick-and-pack automation are mastered in the warehouse.

While robotic arms and driverless vehicles have been working for decades in many factory and warehouse environments, few other systems can do what Swift – the brainchild of Pittsburgh-based startup IAM Robotics – did with its pick of Prilosec: It fulfilled an online order without the intervention or supervision of human workers.

Swift represents “the next generation of pick-and-pack robots” to be deployed in warehouses and distribution centers, said Andrew Wells, director of sales at IAM Robotics. “Yes, there are other robots out there that are autonomous and similar, however they still require human interaction.”

The key difference with Swift, he said, is that Swift can carry out its pick-and-pack processing completely on its own for an indefinite period due to its complex algorithms and connection via wi-fi to IAM’s central processor.

It’s all part of the cargo industry’s slow-but-steady embrace of “Industry 4.0” technology, the most recent step in the evolution of materials handling and manufacturing – the others being 19th century mechanization (1.0), mass production via electricity (2.0) and automation in the late 20th century (3.0). For the current century, we have added “smart” technology that networks these various autonomous systems via the cloud and the “internet of things.”

Robots, however, are just one aspect of the cyber-physical “Warehouse 4.0” shift. Other cutting-edge tech – such as wearable “augmented reality” glasses, real-time inventory software, and even indoor drones – are now working in unison to achieve the final goal of full supply chain transparency for shippers and forwarders. And it’s only just beginning.

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