Machine vision technologies boost warehouse efficiency, transparency

The machine vision industry is providing warehouses with technology to leverage the data generated by cameras, sensors and imagers across the entire enterprise in order to maximize efficiency and productivity.

04/24/2017


Image courtesy: Bob Vavra, CFE MediaAmazon has gotten warehouse efficiency down to a science, and vision and imaging technologies share in the credit. Meanwhile, human pickers are equipped with handheld image-based barcode readers, and merchandise gets scanned at a series of points throughout the fulfillment process.

It's not just retail giants, however. Warehouses of all types and sizes are realizing they don't have to be an e-commerce gorilla to benefit from vision and imaging offerings ranging from 3-D empty tray detection to smartphone-based scanners. Not only is the vision industry providing the hardware, but they're helping their warehouse customers leverage the data generated by cameras, sensors and imagers across the entire enterprise in order to maximize efficiency and productivity.

Moving beyond the barcode

Barcode readers continue to be the bread and butter of imaging applications in the warehouse. These industrial imagers may require less complexity than their traditional machine vision system counterparts, but they nevertheless have a demanding job.

"Compared to factory automation and its many applications, the warehouse is more focused and contained because you are just trying to read a barcode and guide a box where to go," said Bryan Boatner, director of product marketing -mobile and handheld products for Cognex. "But in another sense, because the boxes are moving so fast and throughput is at such a premium, it can be a lot more challenging."

When image-based industrial barcode readers first debuted, their primary value proposition was providing better read rates and capturing more data than their laser scanner counterparts ever could. In reading direct part mark (DPM), 1-D, and 2-D barcodes, image-based devices allowed warehouses to save images of codes that couldn't be read in order to perform troubleshooting and root cause analysis to help improve the process.

Once customers saw that benefit, they started to explore ways to utilize other information available from the barcode image. Until recently, much of that data was tossed aside, said Bradley Weber, manufacturing industry product specialist and application engineering manager at Datalogic.

"It used to be taking that image, running it through algorithms such as reading the barcode, and processing it right then and there, and then moving onto the next package," Weber said. "It's changing now where a lot of that information is being stored and analyzed for later so you can identify trends over time."

To help keep its customers' data from languishing, Cognex developed the Cognex Explorer real time monitoring (RTM) system. When an unread barcode is detected, it automatically transfers the image to RTM, which is designed to evaluate each image and categorize them into a group based on their error—for example, missing labels and poorly printed labels. Categorized images are stored in a database accessible via a web browser. Just as warehouses are relying on the additional data generated by barcode readers, they're embracing a multipart vision system to track a product from the front end to the back end.

"Datalogic is helping our customers to build a fingerprint of the package traveling through the facility using different vision technologies, including barcode readers that integrate optical character recognition (OCR) functionality, sensors that detect the presence or absence of a package, dimensioners that scan the package to provide its volume, and machine vision cameras capturing what is on that package," Weber said.

For its part, Cognex is investigating ways to employ its vision technology on its handheld readers and mobile terminals to automate OCR. "We plan to demonstrate to customers how they can use vision on handheld readers to read ZIP codes off the label in addition to scanning the bin location barcode," Boatner said. "You can even conceive the ability to do the entire form reading where you convert printed fields to an automated data collection service."

Image-based warehouse management machine vision systems are enabling companies to be more transparent—and therefore better partners—to their customers. Datalogic's Weber says that all information gathered together from dimensioner, weight, images, or other sensors can be combined to have a unique ID for a package. "The customers will be able to access it all," Weber said.

Shop floor to top floor 

Delving this deep into the data, of course, depends on the ability of the manufacturing plant or distribution center to connect disparate business activities, enabling dataflow for centralized decision-making. But many of these systems, including warehouse management, continue to operate in silos. To tie warehouse activities into front office operations—colloquially known as "shop floor to top floor"—vision products and systems ideally will integrate with an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which centrally manages an organization's business activities and the data generated by them.

But an ERP comes with its own challenges. "The ERP does just enough to get by, and it's not very nimble," said Dan Hare, vice president of Matrix SSI, which provides technology solutions to centralize inventory control. "It doesn't do a good job at device management, which is part of the inventory control because you're printing labels and scanning. We understand the workflow that happens in the warehouse better." 

Of particular focus for manufacturers is automatically tracking work-in-process inventory, or the raw materials that are being transformed into finished goods. "A lot of this is being done with serialization and lot-type tracking, and older systems just don't do a good job of that," Hare said. "We've seen a big uptick in our solution used as an overlay for [ERP systems such as] SAP and Oracle, and that's even in brand-new installations."

And without being responsive to the needs of the warehouse worker, workflow is likely to suffer. "Many ERPs are designed for big computer screens with a mouse at a desk," Hare said. "Matrix SSI is designed to run on handhelds on the shop floor."

Matrix SSI, which is hardware-agnostic, has spent the past 15 years building an integration tool to connect all silos and disparate systems in a warehouse. It's an engineering effort that vision companies are starting to make for their customers as well. Cognex's RTM, for example, is designed to harness all the data it collects on images, which can be distilled and presented to office managers so they can assess the information and make changes.

The vision-enabled mobile terminal employs technology used across the entire enterprise and leverages a variety of Android and iOS smartphones as the user interface of the device. The phones are set within a ruggedized housing equipped with barcode reading algorithms. Boatner said, "It's a much easier solution to deploy because you have one device that is managed by IT that is deployed in your warehouse, front office, field team, and so on."

Today, the machine vision industry is chasing every opportunity to catch the "killer app," which is usually associated with the massive installed base of smartphones around the world. The warehouse—with its controlled, demanding environment—may be the gateway that brings machine vision technology to everyone's pocket, whether they are a distribution center manager or a customer.

Winn Hardin is contributing editor, AIA. This article originally appeared on the AIA website. The AIA is a part of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3). A3 is a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

ONLINE extra

See additional stories from A3 linked below.



Top Plant
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America.
Product of the Year
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
System Integrator of the Year
Each year, a panel of Control Engineering and Plant Engineering editors and industry expert judges select the System Integrator of the Year Award winners in three categories.
September 2018
2018 Engineering Leaders under 40, Women in Engineering, Six ways to reduce waste in manufacturing, and Four robot implementation challenges.
July/Aug
GAMS preview, 2018 Mid-Year Report, EAM and Safety
June 2018
2018 Lubrication Guide, Motor and maintenance management, Control system migration
August 2018
SCADA standardization, capital expenditures, data-driven drilling and execution
June 2018
Machine learning, produced water benefits, programming cavity pumps
April 2018
ROVs, rigs, and the real time; wellsite valve manifolds; AI on a chip; analytics use for pipelines
Spring 2018
Burners for heat-treating furnaces, CHP, dryers, gas humidification, and more
August 2018
Choosing an automation controller, Lean manufacturing
September 2018
Effective process analytics; Four reasons why LTE networks are not IIoT ready

Annual Salary Survey

After two years of economic concerns, manufacturing leaders once again have homed in on the single biggest issue facing their operations:

It's the workers—or more specifically, the lack of workers.

The 2017 Plant Engineering Salary Survey looks at not just what plant managers make, but what they think. As they look across their plants today, plant managers say they don’t have the operational depth to take on the new technologies and new challenges of global manufacturing.

Read more: 2017 Salary Survey

The Maintenance and Reliability Coach's blog
Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
One Voice for Manufacturing
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Maintenance and Reliability Professionals Blog
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Machine Safety
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
Research Analyst Blog
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Marshall on Maintenance
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
Lachance on CMMS
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.
Material Handling
This digital report explains how everything from conveyors and robots to automatic picking systems and digital orders have evolved to keep pace with the speed of change in the supply chain.
Electrical Safety Update
This digital report explains how plant engineers need to take greater care when it comes to electrical safety incidents on the plant floor.
IIoT: Machines, Equipment, & Asset Management
Articles in this digital report highlight technologies that enable Industrial Internet of Things, IIoT-related products and strategies.
Randy Steele
Maintenance Manager; California Oils Corp.
Matthew J. Woo, PE, RCDD, LEED AP BD+C
Associate, Electrical Engineering; Wood Harbinger
Randy Oliver
Control Systems Engineer; Robert Bosch Corp.
Data Centers: Impacts of Climate and Cooling Technology
This course focuses on climate analysis, appropriateness of cooling system selection, and combining cooling systems.
Safety First: Arc Flash 101
This course will help identify and reveal electrical hazards and identify the solutions to implementing and maintaining a safe work environment.
Critical Power: Hospital Electrical Systems
This course explains how maintaining power and communication systems through emergency power-generation systems is critical.
Design of Safe and Reliable Hydraulic Systems for Subsea Applications
This eGuide explains how the operation of hydraulic systems for subsea applications requires the user to consider additional aspects because of the unique conditions that apply to the setting
click me