Machine-to-machine technology automates the warehouse

Machine-to-machine technology is a handy tool for automating warehouse operations.

Machine-to-machine technology -- also known as M2M -- has evolved into sophisticated systems that monitor all automation aspects within an organization. These M2M systems control all the equipment within the plant that is required to automate the production process or other parts of the supply chain. M2M's automation functionality can be applied to equipment like conveyors, wrapping machines, pallet machines, automated packaging machines, work cell automation and coating machines painting stations. These systems can control the sequence of events and monitor the stages of production where quality control issues may arise, as well as monitoring the health and effectiveness of the machines.

M2M software is very specialized, with packages based on type of production, processes and type of automation and sometimes by vertical. M2M for distribution-based companies, for example, tends to focus on machinery that communicates to fulfill orders. Manufacturing M2M software tends to focus on automating and monitoring manufacturing processes and communications with robotics, schedule resourcing for work cells, reporting and ERP systems. Both of these M2M software varieties have common elements such as product tracking, data acquisition, collection, integration, reporting, equipment management, asset tracking, maintenance, repair and overhaul, resource allocations, status and dispatching.

Merging machine-to-machine technology and warehouse management

Warehouse control system (WCS) software -- which is used within the warehouse automation process -- is another place where M2M can come in handy. A common scenario involving WCS and M2M is set in the context of a distribution company using M2M software to automate some of the order fulfillment process. Keep in mind, however, that this is only one type of M2M technology. There are many misconceptions about WCS and warehouse management systems (WMS) software. The misunderstanding stems from the overlap of functionality that the two systems share. The WCS monitors automated picking, conveyors, guided forklifts, pallet machines and wrapping machines. In this case, the WCS manages more than 70% of the operational process of sales order fulfillment.  

More on warehouse management

Read about the growing WMS market

Learn WMS integration strategies

Determine the ROI of a WMS upgrade

When an order is placed, the warehouse accepts it. A picker initiates the order by starting the pick. The box is placed onto the conveyor and scanned as it passes the first checkpoint. An automated picking machine picks products and places them into the box; the products are then scanned and verified against the sales order or pick ticket. The WCS monitors that the products in the order are correct by verifying order number and quantity of each line item. Meanwhile, the laser-guided forklifts and pallet trucks are picking other parts of the order. The different automated equipment has picked its portions of the order and now deposits those products into the box that is travelling along the conveyor system.

These products are further verified by quantity and order number. Once the quantities and correct products are verified, the order continues onto the shipping department. An employee then removes the box from the conveyor belt and closes the box before placing the boxes on a pallet machine. He then adds the additional boxes to the order and the pallet machine to be shrink wrapped. The boxes are consolidating and then scanned out using an RFID station, and the orders are then back-flushed and updated.

Benefits of machine-to-machine technology in the warehouse

M2M is enterprise software that can impact the bottom line for a company; therefore, M2M requires the same level of consideration as any other enterprise software systems. These systems trade and collect information that provides the organization with actionable information which can expedite decisions and verify operating procedures. Due to the level of complexity needed for machines to communicate with each other, M2M requires deep integration between systems and a thorough understanding of metadata, product data and business processes, as well as an understanding of IT and financial impacts of the data that it provides. It also requires a holistic view of the organization and how this information is used from sourcing to product fulfillment. Using M2M can not only streamline operations, but also ultimately improve customer service. By providing accurate information -- especially in the demand and forecasting areas -- managers can easily predict accurate product delivery times for customers. M2M systems have a slightly different cost structure to implement than other enterprise systems, as each machine is usually considered a licensed user; integrations and the number of machines needed are all then factored into the pricing. Manufacturers should not think that M2M will be an add-on system that does not require as much planning and attention as other enterprise software.

A major advancement in M2M software and another avenue that requires close investigation is the rise of third-party applications in the cloud. These cloud systems can often aggregate data; simplify integrations; extract, transform and load data; add and subtract information to data; create alerts; automate processes and define and configure complex workflows. This is important, because users will not have to reconfigure existing software and worry about possibly breaking code, processes, configurations and engaging IT. These new vendors have provided another viable option for M2M integration.

There are a number of alternatives for enterprises to explore when evaluating M2M software. First, a strategy should be decided upon as to whether the company is using M2M software in-house or a third-party application that resides outside of all existing software and then is integrated. Either way, a heavy business analyst, a programmer, IT and operational resources are all needed to do this right. The integrations reside within the third-party software itself and may be easier to configure and understand, as these systems usually offer more tools to ease integrations.

About the author
Dylan Persaud is managing director at Eval-Source. His 20 years of IT experience are highlighted with 14 years at the enterprise level. Past positions include business systems analyst, implementation lead, project/product manager, enterprise architect, configuration specialist, market analyst and a manager of research, which has allowed him to examine organizations from the ground up and has given him a high-level overview of the enterprise software market. Working for companies such as IBM, IDC, Indigo and TEC, he has focused on how businesses can run more efficiently.

Follow on Twitter @ManufacturingTT.

Dig Deeper on ERP implementation

Data Management
Business Analytics
Content Management