An autonomous tugger train supplies assembly logistics at a BMW plant in Dingolfing, Germany (photo: BMW)

Manufacturing automation has in recent years reached a high degree of maturity, but production logistics has not kept pace. As a result, improvements in manufacturing efficiency haven’t been as high as they could be. “It’s becoming clear that there’s pent-up demand for the automation of production logistics,” said Thomas Stoeckel, founder and co-CEO of nextLAP, a new company that has developed a process to deal with this growing requirement. “What’s key is to link the production and the logistical worlds within an overall platform,” he said.

Suitable solutions using classic automation technology have proven to be too expensive. But modern technologies are reshuffling the deck and manufacturers as well as shipping companies are trying to move toward automated solutions.

At BMW, logistics is at the center of the production system. “The use of innovative, digital technologies is becoming a key factor within complex logistics processes,” said Juergen Maidl, logistics manager at the BMW Group's production network. As part of the restructuring of its logistics, BMW wants to digitize its logistical chain to create transparency. That way, the premium car maker will know where goods are and whether they will arrive on time.

There are good reasons for this rethinking: “In light of increasingly high variation, the manufacturers are facing the challenge of having more and more parts delivered just-in-time, not just the expensive ones,” said Stoeckel, who was formerly in charge of production IT at the Ingolstadt plant of premium brand Audi.

Need for consistency

Roland Kunz, head of automotive at network equipment provider Cisco said production logistics in many companies still has too many silo-oriented systems. Digitization offers the chance to bring consistency in the supply and demand chain, he said.

nextlap-stoeckel-300x300 Stoeckel says Amazon can track objects along the entire chain

Real-time tracking with the help of WiFi is key. “To ensure a fully automated supply chain, it must always be clear where a part is located thanks to real-time tracking,” Kunz said. Information about cycle rates, self-learning algorithms, and a linkage with a map system can then ensure that, if trucks run into problems, they are automatically steered to an alternative route.

In many consumer-facing industry operations such an approach is already a priority and nextLAP’s Stoeckel cited internet sales group Amazon as an example. “At Amazon, it is possible to determine where the package is at any time and whether it will arrive on time,” he said. “So far we haven't had this transparency in manufacturing.”

With low-cost location sensors, it is now possible to know precisely at any given time where something is ”“ the forklift, the skid, the shelf, the tugger train, or rack where the part can be found. The routes from a warehouse an hour away to the assembly line are also becoming transparent. But this requires a foundation: a cloud-based production process platform that provides a view of every movement of the material and assets inside or outside a building.

Large manufacturers have about 6,000 tugger trains running every day. On the narrow lanes inside a factory, things can get tight when a vehicle is stopped at a particular spot.

In the new approach, the factory layout is loaded into the cloud-based platform so the user sees how objects are nearing the line in real time. The platform knows what is being built and what the cycle rate is. As a result, managers can assess whether they should order a part on an emergency basis. The data can also be used to run optimizations.

audi-tech-day-drone-17-small-300x200 Drones deliver components in a test conducted at  Audi's plant in Ingolstadt, Germany (Photo: Audi)

In a joint lab, nextLAP and Cisco are developing a proof of concept for such a system, which relies on a WiFi network in the manufacturing environment. Cisco’s Kunz said the joint Production 4.0/IoT lab maps the chain from the main warehouse to the rack on the assembly line to assess the potential for efficiencies.

The architecture must ensure that only certain persons can read out the data relevant to them. Hence, there must be “a complete security plan,” Kunz said. If that is in place, normal WiFi could be used in the factory environment.

nextLAP, which is based in Munich and Fremont, California, sees yet another aspect that logisticians could assess. “A concept such as digital worker management would also pay off in logistics because staff turnover is often very high and training levels are very low, so practical knowledge is not maintained,” Stoeckel said.

Cost issues

To be sure, traditional warehousing systems exist, but employees are not guided as they pick the right part. Logistics staffs are still moving through the racks with a scrap of paper or a scanner to find the right object. Not least of all, stock-picking is very expensive, and missing circulating stock is practically routine. And, a digital shelf using traditional automation technology would run about 15,000 euros.

“Exorbitant prices of this kind are simply unrealistic once you do the math,” Stoeckel said, citing the need for hundreds of racks in a typical car plant. The analysis of movement patterns or smart reordering processes also does not work with classic warehousing technology.

With hardware from the consumer world, digital solutions could offer a remedy here as well and nextLAP has developed a solution that can equip “analog” warehousing racks and turn them into “smart racks.” The package, consisting of software and IoT hardware, is already in use at premium manufacturers in Germany and the US. Reordering is along the lines of Amazon's “dash button,” which makes it possible to reorder a particular product on a continuing basis automatically with the push of a button. With pick-by-light, the employee sees the object that he needs to remove.

No company will be able to get around the digitization of logistics in the future, Cisco’s Kunz said. “It is one of the foundations of the digital factory.”

By Daniela Hoffmann