Like other aspects of manufacturing, the handling and movement of materials has benefited greatly from the introduction digitized processes. From intake to output and everything in between, a very labor-intensive component of industry is more efficient than ever thanks to the automated tracking abilities made possible by RTLS (Real Time Location Services).
This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the technology. Software platforms, analytics and applications that take advantage of real-time location data supplied through hardware like beacons create new efficiencies that were previously impossible. They also deliver insights and visibility that allow for better utilization of assets and identification of areas for improvement.
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Manufacturing facilities have long used mobile, hand-held devices and scanners to register and track materials at different stages of the process but recent advances in Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) have enabled the automated capture of real-time location data. The nature of many production facilities makes it unlikely that automated location tracking will fully replace all mobile, manually-operated forms of material and input tracking. However, beacon-based infrastructures have found a valuable place as a complementary component to existing tracking systems and a key part of supply-chain management.
Let’s look at how BLE-based location data supplied by beacons and tags is making real-time material handling easier, more efficient and part of lean manufacturing.
The benefits literally start the moment materials are delivered on site. Processing the intake of new inventory is dramatically accelerated when tagged assets are passively detected and automatically added to inventory. There’s no need for the time-consuming manual scanning of palettes and containers when BLE can register their arrival instantly. Instead of blocking other workflows and taking staff away from other, more productive activities, materials can be instantly routed and transported to warehouse shelves, the production line or anywhere else.
This efficiency is transferred to the movements of staff and necessary equipment, like forklifts. When the new inventory is processed quickly, travel paths through the facility are easier to plan and down time is minimized. Beacons and tags get materials in the door and onward to storage or immediate use faster. Not only is down time reduced, but staff allocation and overall planning becomes easier when you know that the entire intake process can be completed in a given amount of time.
Speaking of allocation, the materials themselves can be better distributed when they are viewed through a digital prism. When the location of materials is always passively monitored, it’s easier to evenly distribute them to the appropriate workstation or assembly point. Not only can these stations stay better supplied, avoiding downtime, but, when they do run out of materials, replacements can be located instantly.
BLE-based RTLS gives staff responsible for making internal deliveries or keeping points in a production line supplied easy access to overviews of the current location of all tagged materials. Evening out the distribution of those materials and prioritizing deliveries becomes faster and easier through remote access to real-time data on material locations and statuses.
Even in smaller facilities, it is difficult to recognize backups and bottlenecks in real time before they become a problem. Manual observation and daily experience will only take you so far. It’s usually the case that the small adjustments that need to be made in workflows to avoid these issues can only be identified with the help of digital insights.
As the saying goes, you can’t improve what you can’t measure, and more precise location data supplies the most accurate measurements possible. Without data-based insights into manufacturing, supply chain and logistics processes, your ability to optimize them and measure your progress against KPIs is limited. RTLS is the always-on window that gives you the visibility you need for both a big-picture view and a close-up, micro-level examination of granular data.
Maintaining the efficient operation of manufacturing and warehousing facilities is an enormous logistical challenge. Inputs coming in one door, outputs leaving through another and constant motion across multiple complex processes in between—with this many moving parts, there are an infinite number of issues that can drag productivity down or even bring production to a halt.
At the same time, however, there are an equal number of opportunities to refine processes, facilitate workflows and squeeze an extra degree of efficiency out of wasteful practices. As mentioned earlier, the simple observation of even the most experienced professional has its limits. Beyond a certain point, meaningful insights into operations can only come from data-driven technologies that take advantage of the powers of digitization.
Beacons and tags have established themselves as the go-to hardware that, when combined with conventional tools like barcodes and RFID, helps to complete end-to-end visibility for handling materials in a manufacturing context. Their ability to passively collect business-critical data without engaging or interfering with human staff is a game changer. The real-time location data they constantly stream to software that interprets and converts it into actionable insights that boost operational efficiency is the fuel of any digital transformation.
IoT-based solutions like RTLS are finding new applications in every industry. Converting physical movements into data and leveraging that information into operational efficiencies is driving lean manufacturing. Optimizing material handling is a key component of these strategies, which are dependent on the collection and application of data. The hardware that supports RTLS solutions with real-time data is more accessible than ever and flexible enough to adapt to any use case.
But that data is just a means to an end. The end, of course, is the ability to identify useful business insights and give the data a context. The raw data by itself, in the example of location services, may tell you where things are but that information needs to be paired with business outcomes that you’re trying to achieve before you can understand how your actual performance compares to your desired performance.
That’s where analytics platforms come in.
The data your beacons collect has to be interpreted, organized and presented in a way that relates to business performance and KPI’s. Analytics platforms like Simon can measure current performance against preset benchmarks, generate alerts to potential issues and more.
Without the context provided by an analytics platform, beacons and tags are simply collecting raw position and sensor data. That information has to be properly framed by software to explain that, for example, certain items or assets have moved outside the boundaries of a particular area. This is a critical step in any RTLS deployment—determining how the location engine will convert raw location data into events that are relevant to your business performance.
In other words, you have to set parameters and triggers that allow you to manage assets in real time to avoid trouble and keep everything running smoothly. RTLS data is only useful, only meaningful, when it helps you achieve business outcomes that you would not otherwise get without it. Being able to react in time to warnings of developing problems, getting insights beyond the capabilities of manual human observation and instant notifications of changes in a complex system—all this and more is possible when data is integrated with a platform that constantly checks that data against rules that you set.
In the context of material handling, Simon can monitor the movements of multiple materials in real time and ensure their timely processing, even distribution and constant supply where needed. This makes it easier to avoid costly downtime, reduce search times and meet production deadlines.
If you’re interested in how you can leverage IoT in achieving lean operations in a plant, check our whitepaper.