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SICK Automation is a global provider of intelligent industrial sensors, serving e-commerce applications with vision-based bar code readers. These readers capture and digitise information to help optimise package flow on conveyors, sorters, and automated storage systems.

The e-commerce age success drives the need for smart and digitised sorting and tracking. For all the strategy that goes into e-commerce success, it comes down to moving the right items and packages to customers quickly and efficiently. If operations cannot identify goods accurately and control the movement of automated material handling equipment with precision and speed, the result is unhappy customers and loss of market momentum.

 A challenging environment

The challenge of moving goods has become more complex over time, as e-commerce orders are typically at the individual item level and not full cases or pallets. Another challenge in moving goods is the change in e-commerce packaging, where instead of boxes, with uniform dimensions and edges, the use of polybags and shipping envelopes are more common.

 According to research firm Technavio, polybags accounted for over $31 billion of roughly $82 billion global e-commerce packaging market in 2015 and constituted the fastest growing segment.

 E-commerce operations face other immense pressures, such as demands on the supply chain.

According to MHI’s survey-based, 2018 Annual Industry Report, customer demands on the supply chain were recognised as the biggest industry pressure, with 73% calling it extremely or very challenging. The second most acute challenge reported was hiring of qualified workers, with 64% of those surveyed rating it extremely or very challenging.

Lastly, the 2018 survey found that the adoption of robotics and automation, which stood at 34%, was predicted to exceed 53% in two years and 73% in five years.

 Mega-trends impact industry

The impact of these mega-trends is vast. Firstly, you have smaller, more frequent orders that need to move quickly through increasingly automated facilities. Secondly, the packaging is often smaller bags that can be difficult to detect and handle.

 With these mega-trends in mind, companies need to evaluate whether they have the right sensing, reader and digital image management technology. This is required to provide the information necessary in effective handling, tracking and movement of the smaller-item e-commerce stream.

 “Initially, the goal of reader technology was to get a good read from the scan (typically on a one-dimensional bar code label) and to move product from here to there. Now operations need more information about everything surrounding the read, like label condition and orientation, package condition, and how packages are being presented to the reader. This extra information makes your processes more efficient,” says Tom Wik, national product manager, vision and identification with SICK, Inc.

The rise of vision-based solutions

Automated materials handling systems rely on automatic identification technology to scan bar codes so that goods can be handled and routed according to the correct material flow. Other sensors such as photo eyes, dimensioning systems, and digital weigh scales also are essential to cost-efficient shipping. This is because carriers apply dimensional weight pricing formulas that make it advantageous to use right-sized packaging.

 Vision-based readers are shaping a fundamental technology to meet these challenges.  While laser-based readers still have their place, vision-based readers are needed to read two-dimensional codes. Additionally, the high-resolution digital images that are captured “digitise” what the reader sees as well as the characteristics of the goods moving through the process. This repository of information about package and label characteristics can be used for assessing the root cause of ‘no-read’ events, making automated equipment run better.

 Improving automated sortation systems

Vision-based reading and sensing can, for example, help ensure that automation like sortation systems are being fully utilised. Given the labour crisis in warehousing, it’s crucial that operations investing in automation, like loop sorters that use tilt trays or other mechanisms to handle small packages, can maximise the throughput potential.

  Bruce Muir, national sales and marketing manager for storage and conveyor with SICK explains: “when speed is limited, there needs to be a focus on filling every tray. With vision-based reading, you can capture valuable information from every tray on a loop sortation system, ensuring each tray is utilised, keeping the system highly efficient”.

Gaining better package dataIntelligent vision readers and sensors make it possible to fully interpret package attributes as they enter a facility, and create a digital record of package conditions as the goods exit.

 “This technology sets the stage for both proper internal routing and efficiencies, while also being able to prove package condition as you transfer ownership to customers or logistics partners,” points out Justin Hildman, systems manager for application solutions with SICK.

CubicICE (PTY) Ltd

CubicICE is an integrated marketing and communications agency specialising in B2B and industrial marketing. We are a trusted marketing partner to some of Africa’s largest brands, and, with more than 30 years’ experience, have helped over 200 clients grow their business through strategic marketing intelligence and communications skill. As a full service integrated marketer, CubicICE combines traditional and digital marketing and creative design under one roof, and specialises in both quality lead generation and brand building. We offer all necessary in-house consulting; business planning, research and strategy; copywriting; graphic and digital design; campaign performance measuring and analysis; media planning; and administrative skills – all from our Sandton-based office in Johannesburg. A Google Partner, SEO-certified Company and IAB Member, CubicICE is a leader in search engine marketing, with a results-driven digital approach geared towards providing our clients with a clear online business advantage. Visit us at www.cubicice.co.za

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