The connected warehouse, enabled in part by Internet of Things (IoT) technology, is a concept that’s gaining interest as companies try to cope with e-commerce service level and cost reduction pressures. But, is this concept more vision than reality?
The short answer is that the IoT-connected warehouse is still mostly vision. While some applications, such as lift truck telematics or Cloud-connected temperature sensors, are in use, most distribution centers are not using IoT-connected sensors or equipment. Many automation systems generate near real-time data, but they are usually wired with a controller and into a warehouse control system (WCS). On the other hand, IoT-connected DC is materializing. More suppliers are coming up with IoT solutions. These providers include major warehouse automation and materials handling systems vendors who also provide WCS and warehouse execution system (WES) software. One relatively new company—SensorThink—offers an IoT platform aimed at DCs. What’s more, some companies with distribution chains are testing IoT, including Cisco Systems, which has a warehouse innovation lab (see box) within a working DC.
Industrial IoT is about connecting sensors, controllers or equipment to the Internet or private Clouds to aggregate data for analysis. Most vendors say the connectivity piece of IoT needs to be simplified for users, but it’s really the last half of the IoT proposition—the Big Data-style filtering and analysis—that is the key.
“We see the power of IoT as being connected to Big Data and Cloud capabilities because now we can bring together multiple disparate data sources into one place,” says Scott Wahl, vice president of global software for Dematic, warehouse automation and WES provider.
Carlos Lemus, lead IoT engineer with integrator and WES provider Bastian Solutions, says IoT is coming to warehouses, but warns the technology can be complicated to deploy from scratch, and it is ultimately to be judged by the insights gained. “IoT is almost a misnomer, because it places the focus on connecting to the ‘things,’ but the true value of IoT comes from the data,” says Lemus.
Even if the average warehouse isn’t moving on IoT, vendors are. Dematic, for example, is starting to work with some customers on proof of concepts for IoT-connected sensors or equipment, says Wahl. More generally, Dematic is also adding to its analytics capabilities for purposes such as predictive maintenance. While Dematic has a WES solution, Wahl says IoT-related analytics wouldn’t just look at conventional WCS level data, but it might also need to tap into data from computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) software or from supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems found in a DC. “We are focusing our efforts on solving real-world problems, and part of that is pulling the data together,” says Wahl. “Right now, I would say that within the whole area of predictive analytics, predictive maintenance is probably the one that is most real.”