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:

WOMH 2016 - Lokalisierung

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!

Getting ready

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.