Ready for Warehouse 4.0?

Author : Richard Mount | Director of Sales | Swindon Silicon Systems

01 December 2022

Since the pandemic – and Brexit, the shortage of warehouse workers in the UK has been well documented. But recently, industrial workplace standards body, the RTITB claimed that digitalisation could be the key to tackling the gap, having found a solution that gets forklift operators into warehouse and logistics operations faster, reducing lost days by 89%.

This article was originally featured in EPDT's H2 2022 IoT & Industry 4.0 supplement in the December 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Other solutions that embrace Industry 4.0 smart technologies can also be instrumental in ensuring warehouse productivity – all driven by custom application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), as Richard Mount, Director of Sales at ASIC design & supply firm Swindon Silicon Systems explains here.

Market & consumer data provider, Statista estimated that 2.14 billion people ordered goods online in 2021, up from 1.52 billion in 2016. A revolution in customer expectations, order characteristics and service requirements means there’s more pressure than ever before to get goods from the shop floor to front doors on time and with no margin for error. RTITB is correct that streamlined, digital-first operations can facilitate faster movement around the warehouse. However, there are various other ways that sensor-driven technologies can help warehouses embrace Industry 4.0.

Keeping track

Leveraging low-power and long-range sensors, an Internet of Things (IoT) asset tracking system is the eyes and ears of a busy warehouse operative. Naturally, effective inventory management is the greatest challenge for a busy warehouse – and keeping track of goods isn’t as simple as it looks. During busy periods, stock may fly off the shelves, some of which may be swiftly returned, while other products may sit untouched for months. Being able to manage all these numbers is an art – and science – the IoT can help support.

RFID (radio frequency identification) is a mature technology that has been used for asset management processes in factories for many years. After seeing its success in other parts of the supply chain, warehouse logistics managers are beginning to reap the benefits of it in the warehouse. Rather than only keeping track of numbers, operators can use RFID to monitor inventory in real time, as it moves between and beyond the warehouse walls. An RFID tag is made up of several core components — an RFID chip, which is an integrated circuit (IC), an antenna and a substrate. Each tag has an IC that holds the basic information used to identify it.

Once the RFID reader sends out a signal via its antenna, the induced current in the tag activates the IC, reads the information and sends it out via inductive coupling or backscatter. When selecting an RFID tag IC, designers should specify whether their application demands low, high or ultra-high frequency.

Send in the cobots

RFID is the first step to digitising the warehouse, helping to reduce paperwork, human error and incorrect inventories in a facility. Warehouse logistics managers may also want to decide if there are other processes in the warehouse that will benefit from advanced technology, such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that can carry heavier stock – and collaborative robots.

The market for collaborative robots, or cobots, continues to boom, valued at almost $600 million in 2018 and projected to grow to $7.5 billion by 2027. If these predictions prove correct, cobots will account for about 30% of the industrial robot market, according to research by industrial automation technology market intelligence provider, Interact Analysis.

These cobots are packed with advanced sensor technology to support warehouse operations. And importantly, cobots do not replace operators. Instead, they learn to perform functions alongside human operators with the utmost accuracy, longevity and precision. As a result, cobots can increase the accuracy of picking, improve safety and reduce operating costs, thereby creating a positive impact on productivity, and facilitating warehouse and logistics automation.

Cobots that work alongside human workers rely on position sensors. These sensors could be employed for a variety of tasks — for instance, a rotary encoder might measure the angle of a robotic arm.

When designing these encoders for cobots, it’s often easiest to prototype the component using one of numerous off-the-shelf ICs, each supported by its own discrete capacitors and resistors. This is sufficient when production volumes are very low, and the design does not attempt class-leading performance. However, when design engineers are seeking a solution that will truly differentiate their product, and to integrate as much of the circuitry as possible into a single package, an ASIC is the optimal choice.

Turning to an expert ASIC design and supply company means the PCB (printed circuit board) size can be reduced, leading to a lighter and smaller encoder, ideal for robotics that are always on the move. Some customers also value the protection an ASIC affords for their circuit IP (intellectual property), as custom ICs are far more difficult to reverse engineer than a collection of standard parts. Ultimately, an ASIC allows investment in performance where it matters. ASIC companies, like Swindon Silicon, will carry out a full assessment of the customer’s needs, determining every last detail to ensure the final result is optimised for the application at hand.

A shortage of workers is just one challenge today’s warehouses must face. To become digitalised, optimised facilities that truly embrace the advantages of Industry 4.0, implementing sensor-driven technologies that harness the value of data and unite human workers with automation will be the key to embracing the era of Warehouse 4.0.

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