Why industrial automation Is capturing the world’s attention in the age of Industry 4.0

By Laith Marmash, EMEA Product Marketing Advisor – Machine Vision/Fixed Industrial Scanning, Zebra Technologies.

Coined over a decade ago, the term Industry 4.0 refers to a new industrial revolution driven by major trends such as Big Data, greater computational power, ultra-connectivity, robotics, automation, advanced analytics and 3D printing.

The convergence of these trends holds the potential to transform the entire supply chain, offering enormous long-term possibilities and implications for manufacturers, retailers, and warehouse and distribution centre operators alike. To many supply chain actors, who face the combined challenges of growing cost pressures, constantly changing regulations, and tighter order fulfilment deadlines, the productivity gains promised by Industry 4.0 have never been more attractive.

As a result, the market has grown rapidly and is expected to deliver between $1.2 trillion and $3.7 trillion in value by 2025 worldwide. And yet, when it comes to the digital transformation of the warehouse specifically, hesitation persists. The fear of lengthy deployment cycles, complex software, and costly upgrades discourages some, while others simply wonder where to begin.

How can the warehouse of today become the warehouse of tomorrow smoothly and painlessly? How can warehouse operators truly embrace Industry 4.0 technologies and realize the numerous concrete benefits they offer? One of the most cutting-edge and compelling answers today is industrial automation, which includes both machine vision and fixed industrial scanners. Defined as a cohesive set of technologies and methodologies that are used for the automatic, imaging-based inspection, analysis, and tracking of work-in-progress items and finished goods, machine vision has a wide array of applications across a multitude of industries.

And today’s fixed industrial scanners, some of which now share the same hardware and software platform as machine vision, refine one’s ability to accurately read and decode barcodes on parts, products, packages, and pallets in motion with an unprecedented throughput rate. Though the use case for industrial automation is well proven on assembly lines, nowhere is the growing value of the technologies better illustrated than in the warehouse, where it is a critical enabler of automation and a gateway to the greater simplicity, speed, productivity, and efficiency that Industry 4.0 promises, and today’s global business environment demands.

Greater simplicity for maximum results

Faced with fluctuating production goals and ever-tighter deadlines, manufacturers and warehouse operators need straightforward solutions to ensure consistent quality in both processes and products. By capturing, processing, evaluating, and storing high quality images, machine vision solutions help eliminate inspection errors and boost process performance. They can also enhance the quality of produced and packaged goods and help reduce production, fulfilment and inventory costs. However, for a machine vision solution to offer the greatest possible benefits in both manufacturing and warehousing environments, it must be simple and easy to use.

It also helps when the cameras can fulfil a dual role: inspection/quality control and traceability. The best systems require only a limited number of devices and depend on a single software platform to support both vision and barcode data capture functions, such as the verification of proper label placement and the current location of the package on the conveyance line. The streamlined, multi-function design of such industrial automation systems also make them far easier to set up, deploy, run, and manage than traditional machine vision and fixed scanning systems, thus saving precious time and resources for operations, IT and front-line teams. Thanks to this simplicity, it also becomes easier to integrate more automation into key processes, optimise solutions to ensure those processes run smoothly, and quickly identify and resolve issues.

Greater speed for improved performance

Among the chief advantages of machine vision and fixed industrial scanning is the time saved. With machines assuming a higher share of the production and fulfilment workload, processes are accelerated. Often used on production lines to detect visual inconsistencies in a label or package that could lead to returns, noncompliance penalties, or other costly consequences, machine vision in the warehouse helps identify and resolve anomalies in products, packaging, and labelling while providing the means to improve inventory control. It is enables warehouse operators to streamline the returns process, comply with the latest regulations, reduce loading time and effort, and meet increased fulfilment demands without overburdening workers or compromising on quality.

Greater productivity for increased profitability

At the heart of Industry 4.0 is improved productivity. By facilitating automation, machine vision and fixed industrial scanners deliver high accuracy, high quality, fast inspection, and improved throughput while reducing human error and allowing employees to be directed to more productive tasks. For example, some manufacturing workflows may currently require workers to manually confirm the measurements of 2D and 3D objects or verify the proper orientation of components within a larger part. However, machine vision solutions can automate most, if not all, of those actions to speed up processes and reduce errors in both calculations and subsequent decision making.

Similarly, machine vision solutions can be used in the warehouse to check the print quality and positioning of product and package labels, while fixed industrial scanners can be used to confirm the barcode of a newly printed label is readable and associated with the right package. Workers can then be reassigned to more valuable tasks or freed up to focus on issue resolution to expedite items back into production or shipping rotations. Further down the line, and in various points throughout the facility, the scanners can be used to extract barcode data, report item status, and even help with locationing. They can even be affixed to forklifts to automate data capture regarding the movement of packages and pallets so the operator can stay in the cab and quickly move to the next task.

Greater efficiency for enhanced agility

The data captured by machine vision smart cameras and fixed industrial scanners allows for the automated creation of a digital record. If a defect is detected or an order change comes in and packages need to be rerouted for correction, workers can very quickly retrieve those records to inform follow-on actions. And as order volumes increase and more items need to be inspected across multiple production, picking, packing, shipping and receiving checkpoints, industrial automation solutions can facilitate fast, high quality inspections, reducing the risk of defective products being passed to the next point, as well as validating assembly and tracking information. Manufacturers, warehouse operators and all supply chain partners benefit from the ability to verify complete and correct fulfilment, improve track and trace capabilities, and provide evidence-based compliance with packaging, labelling and shipping requirements. Such optimised workflows allow for end-to-end efficiency that makes it easy to adapt to changes in demand.

Enter the warehouse (and supply chain) of tomorrow

Manufacturers, warehouse operators and others in the supply chain who fully embrace the newest generation of machine vision and fixed industrial scanning solutions will find it easy to seamlessly capture and analyze data and transform it into actionable information. The combination of advanced camera-based technologies with increasingly sophisticated software and analytics capabilities in a single platform will help them reach beyond the scope of traditional inspection and data-capture systems in process optimisation and quality improvement efforts. This, in turn, will empower them to reach new heights of agility, quality, and service levels, opening up new opportunities for all supply chain organisations to remain profitable and competitive in the age of Industry 4.0.

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