Industry 4.0 – a term which has been the subject of many discussions in the world of industry and politics for some time now. Actually, Industry 4.0 is the name given by the Federal Government of Germany to a future project aimed at establishing a closer relationship between IT and manufacturing technology in order to ensure that businesses in the country are fit to confront future challenges.
Thus the fourth industrial revolution proclaimed in the strategy paper, driven by the rapid development of the Internet, will lead to a fusion of the real and virtual world, which will ultimately create an Internet of Things (IoT). Here it is the products or components themselves which link up with other articles, users, or means of transport and communicate among each other to produce error-free and more efficient processes.
A sign of the change towards Industry 4.0 is the ever greater importance accorded to the networking of the IT systems embedded in production and logistics processes, both among themselves and with the Internet in general (so-called cyber-physical systems, or CPS). Alongside the ever faster and more widespread development of automation and integration in industry comes the creation of ever more intelligent monitoring and control technologies which companies can use to manage and optimize entire value chain networks virtually in real time. At the provisional end of such a development stands the implementation of completely autonomous decision processes in the area of production and transportation.
One step on the way there is the self-learning Smart Factory. Here the focus is on the development of intelligent, self-regulating production systems and processes as well as the implementation of linked production facilities which can communicate with one another autonomously.
Smart logistics: logistics of the future
Yet new, smart technologies are also increasingly finding their way into the area of transport and are in the process of revolutionizing an entire industry.
But what exactly are smart technologies?
They are computer-assisted systems which control entire work processes fully automatically. They can operate autonomously and are thus in a position to manage an entire process independently.
Modern-day logistics has little in common with the relatively one-dimensional storage and distribution of goods seen up until a few years ago. This is due to the new Web technologies which permit a whole new level of interactivity between those involved – and the development continues apace. As such, many different partially and fully automated transport systems are already being trialed.
Smart Factory – the intelligent factory of the future
In conjunction with various manufacturers, the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) has developed an initial prototype of an intelligent factory of the future – the so-called Smart Factory. Its main feature is the composition of independent production modules which communicate with each other autonomously with the help of a number of information systems. Humans merely play a supporting role in the production process.
The development is based on three key elements:
- the intelligent, communicating product
- the networked system
- the assisting operator of the system
The intelligent product is permanently informed about its current order, material, and production data with the help of integrated sensors (e.g. RFID or Bluetooth) and is thus able to influence its own production. The networked system communicates simultaneously with the individual intelligent products via CPS components and monitors the individual work steps. In this system, the human operator is directly informed about the product with details of the assembly process and the necessary work steps.
Smart Factory and data logistics
The usual division of production planning and production management no longer applies in the Smart Factory. Instead, there is an integrated approach whereby the machines share information and forecasts on the production process among each other and determine the next work steps. Data relating to the material flow, the utilized capacity of the machines and storage systems, and the use of resources also flows into the process and is taken into consideration when an action plan is created. The information has to flow between the machines in real time so that it can have a permanent effect on ongoing production.
This is where data logistics plays an especially important role, because it is responsible for ensuring that all data – current as well as forecast – is available swiftly and in full, and is forwarded with no time delay whatsoever.
This modern production method by no means ends at the gates of the Smart Factory. The integrated, order-oriented production approach, which embraces the entire value chain from the raw material to the finished industrial product, requires cross-company thinking and the guaranteed smooth sharing of information by data logistics.
The associated challenges are immense. For one thing, a huge flow of data is to be expected, which necessitates an extensive reorganization of the IT infrastructure. Rapid expansion of the networks is therefore inevitable if the project is to succeed.
However, besides the qualitative and quantitative expansion of the data networks, the area of data logistics is confronted with another highly complex and currently much discussed task: how to guarantee comprehensive data security. In addition to ensuring that data is available to authorized users, the maintenance of confidentiality in particular plays a key role. Intruders and the loss or unauthorized sharing or confidential data must be avoided at all costs. Consequently, data logistics experts are faced with the task of developing and implementing wide-ranging security concepts and standards.
The linking of data and transport logistics
As Industry 4.0 takes shape, transport logistics will also play an even more important role alongside data logistics. This especially entails the complete linking-up of all elements involved in the transport chain. In larger areas this is already a reality and in daily use in a number of applications: flexible route planning based on forecasts of the traffic situation or weather and software-assisted management of traffic flows are but two examples. But the technical development doesn’t stop there. The introduction of intelligent, self-driving vehicles in a traffic infrastructure based on the Internet of Things will open the door to completely new dimensions and bring about more automated and flexible logistics solutions.
In this area data and transport logistics go hand in hand. The former provides the information which is then used to optimize the transport logistics. The more extensively information on capacity, weather, traffic, and vehicles is shared, the more efficiently the growing logistics flows can be managed. In an age where production is growing and ever smaller batches are transported (keyword: e-commerce), the production and distribution sides are virtually dependent on the efficiency and flexibility of the transport logistics. The vision of a fourth industrial revolution in general and the concept of the Smart Factory in particular can only become reality in the first place if the logistics can guarantee that raw materials, primary products, and articles ready for shipping are in the right place at the right time.
It is to be expected that smart technologies will gain acceptance in production sooner or later. But how will this affect storage logistics? Will the development take the same or a similar form in this area?
There are enough signs that this will be the case.
Smart transport systems in the warehouse
One big trend in intralogistics operations of the future is the introduction of “cellular transport systems” in the warehouse. This involves swarms of autonomous vehicles which can sense their surroundings independently using laser scanners, infrared sensors, and RFID chips, and navigate to their respective destinations autonomously.
With no central control system these devices deal with incoming transport orders among themselves, set rules governing the right of way, and share data on the position of each vehicle in the warehouse. Since each shuttle processes information on a decentralized basis, the entire control system is spread across a number of virtual shoulders. If disruptions occur, the vehicle swarm reacts on its own and rectifies the problem.
Autonomous transport robots
This is where both Kardex Remstar and Servus Intralogistics come into play. In keeping with the keyword “Smart Factory” the two companies have developed a new solution for optimizing their customers’ internal production logistics.
Dynamic retrieval solutions from Kardex Remstar and a special transport system from Servus Intralogistics, which consists of autonomous transport robots traveling on a track, form the basic elements of the solution. The products of both companies have been available separately for a long time. What is new is the fact that the components have been packaged together with the help of newly developed software to produce one complete and efficient solution. Parts required in the assembly area are stored in the space-saving vertical storage lifts, vertical carousels, or box storage system from Kardex Remstar. At the time of retrieval the Servus transport system automatically picks up the parts from the warehouse and transports them to the assembly area with the help of autonomous transport robots. At the same time, the devices automatically receive information about the necessary work steps and take care of all further steps independently. Accordingly, the Servus system requires no central control system, because the transport robots communicate directly with other transport robots and workstations via infrared and thus react to their immediate environment. The Servus transport system has proven to be particularly flexible, because the track route can be freely configured in the production hall and optimally adapted to existing building structures. As such, the track can be installed anywhere – from the floor to the ceiling – in the warehouse and production halls.
Swarm intelligence from the Fraunhofer Institute
A box storage and transport system designed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics which goes by the name of Multishuttle demonstrates one approach that is essentially similar, but goes further in its current form.
The basic idea is that the key benefit of a storage system should not only be measured in terms of storage and retrieval performance, but also in terms of the speed at which the boxes arrive at their destination. The specialists at the Fraunhofer IML work on the premise that, in the area of storage logistics, the proportion of conveying and storage systems for mini load carriers will continue to increase compared to pallet conveying and storage systems. The reason for this is said to be the continuing fall in the size of consignments and the resulting measures taken to reduce stock levels in industry and commerce.
The original idea featured the development of a transport system with cost-effective, track-guided vehicles. These should also be able to perform storage and retrieval tasks in the warehouse independently so that they can handle the entire transport process from the warehouse to the workstation without having to transfer the goods at any point. This idea led to the development of the so-called Multishuttle, which works in a similar way to the Servus transport vehicle.
However, the engineers soon discovered the limitations of this solution: the inflexible track system. As a result, they set to work on an advanced version of the Multishuttle, which would be able to navigate around the warehouse with no tracks. That is how the institute came to work in conjunction with the company Dematic to develop the MultiShuttle Move, which is compatible with the conventional track system, but is also equipped with a floor-based chassis and an intelligent navigation system. The vehicle has front- and rear-mounted laser scanners which help it to find its way when working on the floor while also serving as a safety feature. With the help of integrated locating technology it can move completely freely in the room and react dynamically to changes without any guidance or other fixed markings. This reduces the fixed conveying technology to a minimum while guaranteeing maximum flexibility.
With the novel system the intelligent and interlinked vehicles perform all transport tasks, for instance from a high-bay storage system to the workstations where the goods are processed or picked. Yet the agile helpers are not guided on their journeys by warehouse management software, but instead manage their coordination independently among themselves without any kind of central control system. Since this kind of storage logistics demands a great deal from the little helpers, any kind of software responsible for the complex task of guiding this swarm of robots would also be overwhelmed. As a result, however, they are able to move around freely on the floor and on track sections within the high-bay storage area.
The vehicles communicate with one another and control themselves using the principle of swarm intelligence. This is made possible by the use of newly developed sensor technology equipped with functions such as radio location, and distance and navigation instrumentation. Such technology helps the individual shuttles to select the shortest and most direct route to their destination at all times and determine among themselves which shuttles will handle particular orders and the best route to take, thereby guaranteeing maximum throughput and thus efficiency in the warehouse.
Collisions are also prevented by the integrated sensor concept, which automatically stops the vehicles if there is an imminent threat of a collision with another device or a person. Otherwise, there are fixed rules governing the right of way in the warehouse, just like in road traffic.
If extra resources are needed, the performance of the transport system can be flexibly adapted by increasing the number of vehicles. There is no need to invest in fixed systems.