Supply Chain Optimization Blog

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The Power of AI + Material Handling

It sometimes seems the world is controlled more by machines than humans. With artificial intelligence (AI) finding applications in almost every industry, it’s important for businesses to adapt and ensure their supply chain operations can take advantage of this technology where it makes sense. In fact, supply chain leaders increasingly look to AI for ways to propel their distribution processes and stay ahead of the competition.

Material Handling Applications 
Interestingly, researchers from the University of California recently announced that robots developed in their lab can look inside a bin of randomly sized objects, quickly understand the size and shape of each discrete item, and successfully grab one and place it in a desired location. Although this capability is early in its development, the possibilities are astounding.  

Today, AI can be used in a wide range of warehouse activities, with material handing being a prime example. Whether it’s picking and packing or moving cartons from packing stations to the shipping area, material handling equipment (MHE) can support and streamline these activities using AI technology. Below you’ll find a deeper dive into a few common types of MHE and how each leverages AI.

Conveyors are a widely used method of transporting items from one area of the warehouse to another. Used extensively in many industries, they play an important role in dramatically improving the speed of material handling in DCs. Adding AI automation to these mainstays has proven to very profitable. AI can be used to place or move products horizontally, vertically, around corners, up inclines and down declines. It can also support more effective merges, diverts, and product accumulations as needed. This reduces the cost for redundant tasks performed by users, helping to ensure more efficient inventory movement and better performance.  

Self-Driving Vehicles (SDVs)
An SDV is a machine designed to travel automatically on a designated path. It is typically battery controlled and can be programmed to make stops at pick-up and drop zones without human intervention. Users can direct SDV movements by making configurations in the operating system based on business requirements. Unfortunately, these vehicles sometimes runs into things they shouldn’t. With the addition of AI technology to sense and eliminate physical hindrances on the configured travel path, SDVs can cause less damage in the warehouse.

Sliding Racks
Grocery stores commonly use these racks to stock inventory. When goods are moving rapidly, it becomes difficult for a worker to keep count of stock levels on a daily basis. AI-enhanced racks can count the stock and report data to supervisors via a system message. Every time a certain quantity of product is removed from a rack, a new cycle count value is sent to warehouse system, and the inventory is updated accordingly. This helps in demand forecasting and offers valuable information for running a smooth order management/replenishment process within the DC. 

Constant Communication
AI-supported equipment can be integrated with warehouse operating systems to facilitate communication and information sharing. Every movement is recorded in a feed and considered an input for future enhancements. Each time a robot picks a product or places a product in a location, a message is sent to the warehouse control system (WCS) confirming the action. In return, an acknowledgement can be sent to the robot or other MHE confirming receipt. This feedback loop helps minimize damage and captures any discrepancies for tasks performed to provide an audit trail useful in finding the source of any issues.   

Change: The One Constant
Change is one of the few things we can count on happening—but changes aren’t always a bad thing. In particular, the changes AI is facilitating in the business world are largely positive, generating new levels of efficiency and insight.

Pushing the boundaries of success and what’s possible is intrinsic to human nature. This curiosity and drive has paved the way for inventions like AI in the warehouse and beyond. The growth in e-commerce is urging a more sophisticated way of dealing with order fulfilment and delivery and failing to investigate new ways to enhance these processes could be detrimental. Because of this, technology that leverages AI well and cost effectively is here to stay.

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