Cover Story: Advanced simulation software provides optimization insight, enabling distribution and fulfillment centers to address issues and optimize efficiency. See video.
- Simulation software helps improve the management and optimization of internal production and distribution processes.
- Digitalization provides new methods for intelligent and efficient operation in warehouse settings.
- Advanced simulation software brings the software and live equipment worlds together.
The end of the year is notorious for causing sudden onsets of panic as the weight of the holidays hits, and the realization of purchasing gifts sinks in. Every pressure experienced by the general public around this time of year, however, is multiplied by an order of magnitude for distribution and fulfillment center managers.
These managers and their personnel are faced with difficult tasks, with internal production expectations from the corporate level and external delivery expectations from customers adding to the heat. Fortunately, digitalization is continuously providing new methods for intelligent and efficient operation in warehouse settings. Thanks to advanced simulation software, taking care of intralogistics – the management and optimization of internal production and distribution processes – is constantly evolving and improving.
As anyone who has set foot in a modern fulfillment center knows, its managers must be resilient, and be able to adapt and scale intralogistics processes. It takes thoughtful warehouse design and preparedness to address these issues, and advanced simulation software can help fulfillment and distribution centers remain competitive, from design to operation.
Intralogistics issues for simulation software
Though increased consumer demand creates lucrative business opportunities, the challenges to overcome in the world of distribution and fulfillment centers are great. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has created new workplace safety needs, increasing the need for low-touch and no-touch processes.
The finite size of fulfillment centers requires intelligent use of technology to make more efficient use of limited space (Figure 1). It also requires effectively planning the layout, strategically placing products and improving material flow availability, along with maintainability and performance.
Growing global ecological awareness and rising energy prices are motivating many companies to work towards carbon neutrality, impacting how work is done in a warehouse. To support these efforts, methods must be put in place to monitor energy consumption and provide insights on ways to further increase energy efficiency. Transparency initiatives also often require this data to be made publicly available.
Adding to these technology-related difficulties, there are often not enough IT staff available to keep up with advancements in automated technology – too much data, not enough information processors. To overcome this obstacle, warehouse staff need systems that generate insights and present them in digestible formats, reducing complexity for interaction among humans, automation and information.
Overcoming these hurdles to successful fulfillment center operation requires increasing application of digitalization and efficient automation concepts, especially focused on removing costs and reducing risks when installing new material handling equipment. Furthermore, to remain competitive with other companies and maintain the capacity to fill incoming orders, businesses must increase fulfillment speeds. Though the challenges abound, there is a way to optimize efficiency and meet the many needs of modern fulfillment centers.
Digital twin for design optimization
Advanced simulation software addresses these and other issues by bringing together the software and live equipment worlds. This enables optimization of a warehouse environment first in software – where creating prototypes and modifying the process is relatively inexpensive and simple – so the resulting real-world deployment operates efficiently. Though simulation demands time, money and attention, the benefits often outweigh the costs.
An advanced simulation software suite helps warehouse managers digitalize the value chain at the time of conceptual design and during commissioning on the warehouse floor, and also after deployment for review and analysis of methods to improve operational effectiveness.
A facility simulation tool provides a virtual view into warehouse operations. At design time, software engineers can create a multi-dimensional warehouse environment in conjunction with the facility designers, enabling a three-dimensional simulation of how the warehouse will perform.
Users are provided with the ability to simulate the distribution center layout, visualize material flow, monitor programmable logic controllers (PLCs), configure intelligent industrial devices and apply advanced statistical tools to analyze processes. Engineers can run these processes and monitor each in real time, model production data and optimize the facility configuration to determine a more efficient design (Figure 2). Monitoring includes the ability to visualize real-time PLC input/output updates in accordance with the program logic.
Analyzing logistics applications with software
For material handling applications, the software provides the capability to access working conditions. It also includes built-in ergonomics analysis for optimal positioning of pick-and-place machines, platforms, and other mechanisms to provide mechanical advantages for manual human motions (Figure 3).
By using advanced software through iterations of simulations, robots can learn optimal paths and movements, and trackless automated guided vehicles (AGVs) can determine best routing. The software runs thousands of possible movement schemes, taking into consideration all proposed equipment and its location on the warehouse floor, and provides the most efficient robot movements and AGV routes.
Proper selection of motors, drives, other automation
Physics calculations – including gravity, friction, and torque – are built into the software, increasing the simulation’s realism and building confidence in the mechatronic models. A mechanical engineer can be tasked with confirming the kinematic components are optimally configured, and once mechanical components and statistics are known, designers can properly size motors, drives, and other equipment.
From this software suite of tools, users can automate multi-domain engineering, enabling collaboration with consistent data among the various engineering disciplines. The software can automatically generate electrical drawings and PLC projects, which provides a head start on the engineering effort and reduces overall design time.
Once this basic code is generated, programmers can make adjustments impacting later simulations, and they can drill down as deep with code updates as required. This enables users to view a full model of the future warehouse floor – complete with conveyors, automated lifts and scanners, stack lights, AGVs, and material flows – all operating in sync.
Nine ways simulation software can help
Many other equipment types can be staged in the simulation workspace:
- High-density storage and retrieval systems for food, hard items, and consumer-packaged goods
- Functional safety devices
- Advanced optical identification devices for product movement tracing
- Scalable and flexible shuttle systems
- Control components for advanced shuttle vehicles, onboard and non-onboard
- Real-time, fail-safe communication with industrial wireless local area networks for reliable, high-speed, and cyber-secure connection among devices in the warehouse
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- Edge computing devices
- Compact and mobile controllers embedded in other equipment.
While a simulated view of plant floor processes plays out, users can simultaneously monitor human-machine interface (HMI) displays and PLC ladder logic operation within the simulation software to help virtually commission the machines. These virtualized simulations are digitalized plans for warehouses and distribution centers, helping ensure the physical deployments will operate as intended.
Modeling underwent a transformation from 2D sheets to 3D virtual renderings a short while ago, and now, real-time feedback and motion also is attainable. Software simulation allows designers to model and visualize how a facility will operate in advance of real commissioning. As a result, multi-disciplinary design teams can adjust early in the game, yielding positive productivity.
Simulation software results
A large-scale manufacturer of home care products was able to consolidate four distribution centers into one facility to simplify operations and reduce overhead cost. Using an advanced simulation software suite, this manufacturer effectively modeled and implemented a facility only half the size of its previous facilities’ combined areas while increasing processing capacity.
It increased its product storage density by 50%, and now utilizes around 90% of its volumetric storage capacity. Furthermore, it requires 20% less transport within the facility than it did prior to the consolidation. Greater efficiency, made possible through advanced simulation and cutting-edge intralogistics technology, provided the manufacturer with higher profit margins and a reduced carbon footprint.
In another example, a global shipping company recently implemented an ultramodern sorting and conveyance system at one of its international airport locations (Figure 4).
Using components, which included PLCs and drives, it was able to achieve a sorter transport speed of eight feet per second and peak performance of 9,000 parcels of various size per hour.
Simulation software system diagnostics for runtime
Once a facility is up and running, simulation maintains its value as a tool for experimenting with process or program adjustments, while system diagnostic software capabilities add value to optimization efforts.
Diagnostic tools enable predictive maintenance by alerting personnel of issues detected in the facility in advance of equipment failure. In some system diagnostic configurations, certain events, like broken wire or low voltage, are embedded in the PLC for communication with an accompanying HMI. In such a case, maintenance technicians can troubleshoot common issues right from the HMI screen, with no need to pull out a laptop and plug in to the PLC (Figure 5).
Furthermore, these same configurations gather and store real-time data and provide operators with the ability to play back previous data on the HMI, helping them to determine what triggered the alarm condition. These tools, accessible on the warehouse floor, help reduce downtime and increase throughput.
Simulation software helps moving, sorting, picking, packing
As society becomes increasingly connected, warehouse technology is advancing. Customer and corporate expectations also are increasing, as well. Left to outdated tools and methods, distribution and fulfillment centers cannot keep up.
But by using advanced simulation software and modern technology for moving, sorting, picking and packing – warehouses can overcome these challenges. While simulation requires additional initial costs and efforts, future time and efficiency savings typically far outweigh the costs.
Through simulation in projects’ early stages, system designers can simplify scope, reduce total time and effort required to implement, and help ensure more efficient fulfillment center operation. When the rubber meets the road, this can make the difference between a happy delivery recipient and a livid customer whose order got lost in the warehouse.
Keywords: Simulation software, warehouse manufacturing
What immediate benefits could your facility gain from advanced simulation software?