The mother of all systems? We’re talking about localisation, a subject you cannot ignore if you have long-term plans to implement a fully networked intralogistics system down to the very last wheel nut. Localisation technology enables you to locate goods, containers and all your vehicles – and track what happens next. Hard to believe? It might seem so, but if you consider what managing a fleet or material flows is all about, you always end up back at the same question: Where are my trucks? Only once you have an answer can you begin realising an application for monitoring your forklifts or finalise your start-to-finish warehouse management system. But let’s start at the beginning. I had the chance to find out more about this rapidly developing technology by talking with Colin Flint and Franziska Klein who are part of the Connected Solutions team at Linde. That is where they work on the systems that I personally feel are the wave of the future when it comes to logistics.
Safety first: people are more important than boxes
We need to find out where the vehicles and people are. Why? Colin Flint explains: “Safety first, which means people before boxes!” Zone monitoring is step number one on the “roadmap” the Connected Solutions team are using to develop the overall system. That means defining the zones – the virtual areas within a given space, be it a warehouse or production facility – where different speed limits apply. When a vehicle enters a zone, its speed is automatically limited to the maximum allowed in that area. That’s not all: employees are explicitly warned whenever they enter a dangerous zone. Now let’s take a leap and imagine the next logical step: the system is equipped with crash-prevention features. Injuries would be a thing of the past; no truck would ever collide with another vehicle. That’s because if the system knows where A and B are located, it can prevent them from running into each other. As far as possible applications go, it’s a no brainer.
The logistics manager would, of course, have a map in front of them depicting the positions of everyone and everything. They would even be able to redefine the zones and speed limits as needed:
Linde Material Handling is presenting the technological basis for such an application here at WoMH, namely the tagging system it is developing together with localisation specialist Quantitec, a system that makes it possible to identify where people, machines and containers are currently located. Think of those James Bond films where a tiny transmitter is attached to a car so that its position appears on a computer screen back at headquarters. But to be used in the world of intralogistics, the technology must, first, be robust enough. Second, it must function indoors. The solution here is “wireless triangulation” and multiple sensors that can provide highly accurate tracking – within two centimetres, to be precise. It’s a much better approach than using GPS, which is the solution most people think of first. The problem with GPS is, it doesn’t really work indoors. The signal is deflected by walls and ceilings, so the results are anything but precise.
Let’s watch a short video which illustrates the basic idea. Keep your eye on the moving red dots – they represent vehicles and people. You’ll also see a person entering a zone that, for demonstration purposes, immediately becomes green.
Further development and outlook
It all starts with localisation – which is why it’s not an exaggeration to call it “the mother of all systems”. As soon as the localisation system is installed, the tracks are clear for all the follow-on applications. The second step on the roadmap used by the Connected Solutions team is implementing a monitoring system for trucks. The last step entails creating a complete warehouse management system, or WHS for short. It would work as follows: 1) The order is entered into the ERP system. 2) The WHS knows exactly where the nearest available vehicle is that’s suitable for doing the job. 3) This is because the location of every vehicle and/or every driver with vehicle is being transmitted to the system, along with whether the vehicle is currently carrying out another task or not. 4) The system then chooses the vehicle optimally positioned to fill the order, which the vehicle/driver does. 5) The desired goods are transported to the shipping department or loading dock. Mission accomplished!
As far as I’m concerned, it can’t be emphasised enough: the future is going to be all about these types of systems. Analog devices without sensors or network connections will only be found in museums. Anyone looking for more intelligent solutions – solutions that don’t leave the logistical details, i.e. the last few metres, to chance – will have to think about these things. And let’s be honest: today’s solutions are just the tip of the iceberg. They merely hint at the overall potential and countless advantages waiting to be discovered. Here’s one example: traffic-flow planning based on retrospective heatmaps that makes hotspots less hot and accident-prone intersections less dangerous.
The truth be told, I was shocked to learn that the localisation processes described above still occur at many companies either by having someone call out the relevant information or by walking it over. In other words: using sound waves or paper! No one at those companies knows exactly which order has just been completed, where the vehicles are currently located, what condition they are in, and which driver is in which truck. Unbelievable! I always thought the 21st century was going to be more modern. Yet that is exactly where the opportunity lies: moving traditional warehouse management forward so that all customers are taking advantage of digital technology everywhere. That is why the topics of connectivity and, in particular, indoor localisation are my personal favourites.
The term “connectivity” describes a coming era in which industrial trucks, employees and warehousing systems will all interact with each other using electronic solutions. This digital-age trend is becoming more evident in the area of intraglogistics as well. But what does that mean in practice? Here’s an example.
Linde Material Handling presented a new application at WoMH that will soon be available to vehicle operators. Called the pre-operational check – or, more informally, the pre-op check– it allows drivers to use an Android smartphone to carry out the required assessment of the vehicle’s condition before starting work. The driver connects to the truck using Bluetooth and NFC and then fills out a questionnaire provided by the fleet operator. The questionnaire can be configured as needed. The driver’s access to the vehicle is verified and the vehicle is checked to ensure it is safe to use before it is started – all in accordance with the company’s operational standards and legal guidelines.
Step 1: The app connects with and identifies the vehicle using NFC.
Step 2: The driver answers questions about the vehicle’s condition using the app. If the vehicle is damaged, they can send information about the damage, including a picture.
If damage is found during the checking procedure, the relevant information is sent via email, which can also be individually configured, to the fleet manager, warehouse supervisor or service technician. In addition, the driver can snap a “selfie” of the vehicle and attach it to the email. Instagram for forklift trucks? In a way, yes. It ensures that the proper manager is immediately informed if there is a problem.
One feature that is a big help for companies with extensive premises is GPS tagging, which allows precise coordinates to be sent along with the picture. That means the service technician and fleet manager know exactly where the vehicle can be found.
These days, it’s as easy as that! Modern technology can help keep the fleet in top condition. Customers in the UK in particular are looking forward to the solution, which will be available shortly after WoMH closes, since they must meet special legal requirements and doing so is much more efficient using a smartphone.
But the app is capable of even more. It can be used to send individualised notifications to drivers – a message from the fleet manager, for example, that the operator’s driving licence must be renewed or that it’s time for a first-aid refresher course. And if the vehicle runs on lithium-ion technology, the app can display the battery’s current power level. Very practical!
After speaking with the responsible colleagues it became clear that the app is not just a technological gimmick, but that the developers focused on creating an easy-to-use system that has practical features geared toward everyday situations. All of that makes life simpler for both fleet managers and drivers. I have the feeling this is not the app’s final iteration. Usually what happens is that people come up with additional ideas and suggestions once they realise a solution is worth using. That means Linde Material Handling should get ready now for the app’s next development wave.
A number of the visitors who have made their way to WoMH are forklift operators. I always enjoy speaking with them since I learn more about how they do their jobs “on the ground”. There’s one aspect that gets mentioned again and again: operators who work with reach trucks and have to approach racking bays eight metres in height or more always complain about the load beginning to sway. That’s because the mast can start swinging back and forth when the goods are removed from the bay or when the mast is moved while loaded. How long the swaying lasts can vary. It can even go on for up to half a minute depending on the size of the load and the height it’s being lifted to.
What does the operator do while this is happening? The less experienced ones simply sit and wait. A more experienced operator will begin moving the joystick very gently, causing counter-movements that bring the swinging to a halt more quickly. It’s not all that easy. And it takes time.
Dynamic Mast Control
Visitors at WoMH have the opportunity to ride to the top of a specially converted reach truck so they can experience Linde’s innovative solution to this problem with their entire body. They are elevated to a height of about ten metres and the driver then starts moving them – the “goods” – around. What they experience next is … absolutely nothing!
That’s because the truck has been outfitted with Dynamic Mast Control, a safety system developed by Linde. As soon as the operator at WoMH turns off the system – just for demonstration purposes, since the system normally can’t be shut off – the difference quickly becomes apparent. I rode to the top myself and was amazed how big the difference is. When DMC was not in operation I felt like I was up on the mast of a ship sailing the high seas. Ahoy! As soon as DMC was activated, however, the “seas” grew calm. I could basically feel no swaying at all.
As an aside: the technicians installed an emergency button next to the seat for participants who might have second thoughts once they were at the top, just in case. The bell that rings sounds like an ordinary doorbell: ding dong! The operator called up to me to stop pushing the button, since I couldn’t resist trying it out.
To make things more understandable, we naturally have a video that illustrates what Dynamic Mast Control can do. However, when DMS is activated, there’s not really a lot to see. Curtain up:
Every forklift truck driver should know his load chart. It shows how much weight you can lift, how big the load can be and how to keep balance. But drivers don’t always know exactly how much the load actually weighs or, for example, where the centre of gravity is in the case of a long load. Accordingly, it is not always possible to prevent accidents when handling a load. You’re going too fast, turn a corner too sharply, the centre of gravity shifts – and before you know it, you can watch yet another accident video on YouTube: domino effects in the high-bay warehouse. It sounds funny, but it isn’t.
The devil is in the details
Linde has spent years researching ways of preventing or at least reducing these kinds of accidents. Eventually the development laboratories produced a product that can probably be described as the most exciting safety solution of recent years in this field: Linde Safety Pilot. At its heart lies an electronic copy of the above-mentioned load chart. Using sensors, the safety unit monitors all relevant factors in a minute fraction of a second: how large is the angle of turn, how heavy the load, where is the current centre of gravity of the combined vehicle and load, how fast does the driver want to go, how high is the fork, is the truck going forwards or backwards? All these parameters – and many more – have to be constantly evaluated, because driving and load conditions change in milliseconds.
All of this had to be implemented as robustly and reliably as possible in the course of painstaking development work. The eyes of the product manager who told me all this began to sparkle as she reported on the challenges involved. There were endless trials with constant adjustments and improvements. She talked about it as if it were her baby. And somehow that is what it is too – you only have to hear Linde engineers explaining their technological achievements. This incredible attention to detail always fascinates me.
What can the Safety Pilot do?
Within certain limits, this active safety system will stop a truck and its load tipping over. That is what it is all about. The video below demonstrates that, because Linde has set up a real simulator at World of Material Handling that lets you test the system without risk.
The active version of the system does not only signal a potential danger and warn the driver via a monitor screen combined with an acoustic alarm. It also stops the driver increasing the speed too much. To be precise: it actively intervenes, reducing the speed if the driver moves the forklift into the danger zone. The response is similar when it comes to lifting height. Here, too, the maximum height is limited when the maximum load weight is reached. The following video shows what the system does as demonstrated in the simulator:
What else can the Safety Pilot do?
The driver receives access to various additional features that drivers at the fair have already told me they actually like using in practice. They include, for example, being able to set a maximum lifting height to ensure the roller shutter can enjoy a much longer life. Or there is the so-called picker function that displays the number of loading procedures carried out with all the weights added together. It’s an excellent method of checking against the cargo documents: “Have I unloaded 12 pallets from the truck with a total weight of 5 tonnes?”
The LSP monitor:
As I learned, the operating unit of the Linde Safety Pilot is behind the joysticks of the Linde Load Control. Its operation is very straightforward. You simple turn the control and confirm – there’s nothing more to learn.
No guarantee of safety
For me, the Linde Safety Pilot is what ESP (electronic stability program) is in a car. It’s a technology that you basically hardly notice in everyday driving – like a quiet good fairy. It can’t guarantee absolute safety – the Linde Safety Pilot is powerless against wilful mischief or loads that stick out unevenly beyond the sides of the vehicle.
World of Material Handling 2016 got off to a successful start and is now offering an expected 6,000 visitors from all over the world an abundance of information about the latest challenges in intralogistics. Linde Material Handling has recognised four major trends here – Automation, Connectivity, Individualisation and Power Systems – which will be presented in detail during the fair under the motto “linked perspectives”. How did Linde discover them? The answer is almost too simple to be true: close customer relations!
Close customer relations – an empty phrase?
I’ve really noticed it in all my discussions with the employees I’ve met so far during the event. They fill the idea of close customer relations with life in a way I’ve never experienced before with other firms. Many companies make pronouncements about their closeness to customers in their brochures, but how many of them actually live this idea? If all firms were like that, there would be far fewer bad products and less poor service. Without close customer relations, a company cannot realise good products or keep up with the times and its customers. It is therefore no coincidence that I have heard more than once in discussions with visitors that “Linde is the authority when it comes to forklifts!” This should be understood as an honour, an acknowledgement of the attention to detail and high quality standards shown in realising products and services. People abroad probably describe this as “made in Germany”.
Andreas Krinninger on close customer relations
Andreas Krinninger (CEO Linde Material Handling) explicitly acknowledged these close customer relations when he welcomed a large number of visitors with the words: “Supporting our customers in optimising their material handling performance is our key priority! Our target is to be the company that best understands our customers’ material handling challenges and performance improvement opportunities.”
He said the following about the four trends – Automation, Connectivity, Individualisation and Power Systems: “These four trends suggest a high growth momentum for the intralogistics sector. The four trends will largely determine the further development of our offering. We need a broad-based approach to help our customers optimise their ever more complex process chains.”
What do the four trends mean in concrete terms?
Christophe Lautray, Linde Material Handling’s Chief Sales Officer, outlined them in greater detail for visitors. Let us sum up what he said here:
The key to increasing efficiency is no longer only the vehicle itself, but its integration in processes. Based on an increasing number of sensors and communication systems, the world of intralogistics is increasingly becoming an interconnected operations system. You could even regard it as a kind of operating system. No matter which machine is being operated or which software is being used, the operating system ensures all the components are connected.
The steadily growing range of autonomous industrial trucks capable of driving and lifting without an operator is accompanied by a clear paradigm shift: the boundaries between manual and fully automatic operation are becoming increasingly fuzzy. What’s more, the concept of the “smart factory” already indicates where things are heading. Automated vehicles communicate not only with WMS and ERP systems, but also with other devices, roller conveyors and gates as well as machines and equipment.
Ultimately, dwindling resources, stricter emissions regulations and higher sustainability and efficiency standards are leading to the introduction of alternative power systems. Today, customers like BMW are already relying on vehicles powered by fuel cells or lithium-ion batteries to put the principle of sustainability into practice throughout the production process. More and more customers are asking about alternatives to lead-acid batteries. A significant proportion of vehicles will use lithium-ion technology in the foreseeable future.
The growing e-commerce market is resulting in a steady decrease in batch sizes while simultaneously bringing about a fundamental change in the requirements for order picking and product handling. As a result, there is increasing demand for larger numbers of models, options and custom manufactured products to be able to keep up with competitors while simultaneously increasing efficiency, improving safety and reducing costs.
What comes next?
So now we know the four major trends. But what do they mean in practice? So much for the theory. Next, during the event, I will illustrate all four areas with practical examples and applications, and also interview fair visitors – customers, experts and partners – to make this as lively and concrete as possible.
When it comes to the four key topics of Automation, Individualisation, Power Systems and Connectivity, it is especially the latter that holds enormous potential when we consider an increasingly networked world in the near and distant future. One day in museums we will be able to look back nostalgically at the world of analogue machines without sensors or communication systems.
The future belongs to machines that are networked together and can communicate with humans and IT systems in real time through the cloud. This amounts to nothing less than a revolutionary transformation of the entire supply chain.
Linde is playing a leading role in this change with a variety of different solutions. Let’s take a look at the potential and the advantages that digitalisation and networking offer for everyday operations, which are being presented here at WoMH in a clear and understandable way: safety can be improved using an app, digital access control or driver assistance systems and you can realise more efficient maintenance cycles using connect: fleet management, Linde MyLife or the Service Manager app. There must be thousands of possible applications for the new indoor location system presented here by Linde Connected Solutions that can track the position of vehicles inside buildings with centimetre accuracy. Or there is Linde Safety Pilot, which is now also available for IC trucks, including diesel and gas forklifts.
I could have talked with the experts for hours. This subject offers exciting opportunities, which it is interesting to discover and understand. And I will continue to keep asking the specialists questions so I can write in detail about individual aspects of connectivity in this Daily Report. It is well worth visiting the Linde Connected Solutions website, where you can discover how the Linde connect: fleet management system works in practice at the headquarters of ceramics manufacturer Villeroy & Boch.