Top Four Ways to Automate Logistics with Machine Vision

Top Four Ways to Automate Logistics with Machine Vision

Keeping pace with the relentless demands of modern fulfillment and logistics can be daunting for any warehouse manager. In today's landscape of instant gratification and soaring expectations, achieving flawless fulfillment and shipping performance is not just a goal but a necessity.

Given recent labor shortages and rising labor costs, you can’t just throw people at the problem. But you can’t just keep doing business as usual either. You need to figure out how to be much more efficient, accurate and cost effective with the workers you have, but without burning them out and driving them away.

This is where machine vision technologies can be a huge help by automating more of the data capture, scanning, tracking and quality checks that your workers need to perform, so you can fulfill more orders and manage more packages and shipments with less time, effort and labor.

In this article, we’ll take a look at machine vision technologies, how they work, where you can use them, and four key ways you can use machine vision to increase your warehouse speed, accuracy and cost effectiveness.

Let’s start by looking at machine vision sensors, what they are, and how you can use them automatically scan barcodes, capture data, and even inspect your items, boxes, packaging and processes.

A Quick Overview of Machine Vision Technologies

Machine vision sensors are advanced imagers that can scan 1D/2D barcodes like a sophisticated barcode imager, but they’re also able to read and decode text and even capture highly detailed images for instantaneous, machine-driven visual inspections with remarkably precise accuracy.

For example, Zebra Technologies, one of the leading manufacturers of machine vision sensors, produces devices that can serve as both a fixed industrial scanner and a machine vision sensor. Using advanced imaging, algorithms, lensing, lighting, and Zebra’s Aurora software, each device can automatically capture up to 16 images of a barcode, text string or object, and the device can decode that image or analyze it for size, shape, color, uniformity, contrast, presence/absence, pattern matching, defects and much more.

With machine vision sensors, there is no need for someone to manually scan a barcode or manually perform visual inspections. The sensor and software work together to do it for you, with immediate feedback, analysis and pass/fail results provided through your network and systems.

In a warehouse, this means you mount these sensors in packing areas, on forklifts, at dock doors, and even on high-speed conveyor lines to automatically scan, track and inspect virtually anything that’s moving through your processes.

This helps save time and labor across a number of crucial logistics tasks, and it also helps ensure quality and accuracy in your fulfilment processes and shipping.

While there are countless ways you can potentially use machine vision sensors, here are the four ways that we typically see warehouses start using them.

How You Can Use Zebra Machine Vision in Your Warehouse

1. Packing Bench Scanning and Inspections

You can easily mount machine vision sensors above packing benches to help packers scan and verify each item that’s going into each box or package and to scan and inspect each label that’s printed and applied. This helps packers keep their hands free and verify content and packing for accuracy, all while tracking and verifying everything automatically and updating your systems on the fly. In fact, you can even match items to specific orders and packages and automate your shipping label printing and application by automatically sending the right data to a printer, triggering a print job, and having the label applied to a shipment with an automated print-and-apply system.

This is a huge improvement over conventional packing bench setups, where a packer must retrieve items or boxes, put them on the bench, use a handheld barcode scanner to manually scan barcodes, and then manually peel and apply shipping labels before placing the box on a conveyor for shipping.

With Zebra’s machine visions sensors, there is no need for a bunch of cabling or complex infrastructure. Its sensors are plug-and-play devices that can be plugged into the USB port of a workstation, laptop, tablet or other host device, and Zebra’s Aurora software makes it extremely easy to set up a new scanning or inspection routine and get an automation job up and running.

2. Conveyor-Line Scanning and Inspections

In our discussion above, we’ve already touched on the use of machine vision sensors on shipping conveyors. But this application warrants a deeper exploration.

In many modern warehouses and logistics operations, items and packages are often moved on automated conveyor lines, to move them from one department or process to the next, and to send labeled packages off to be loaded and shipped.

With machine vision sensors, you can further automate these processes and perform quality checks that can save you a lot of time, labor, cost and potential mistakes. For example, you can use machine visions sensors to create scan and inspection tunnels, where items and packages are automatically scanned, inspected, and even routed to the right conveyor lines based on their barcodes or other identifying information.

Sensors can capture a 1D or 2D barcode for identification, decode box or label text, and even capture and analyze images to inspect labels and packaging for accuracy, integrity, presence/absence and much more. It can do all of this at high speeds, using imaging technology that can capture hi-resolution images in virtually any lighting condition and based on virtually any criterion you can specify.

By automating scanning, tracking and inspection in this way, you can free up workers who might normally have to scan and check barcodes, labels, and packages manually. They can be re-assigned to other value-added tasks while your machine vision sensors handle all your data capture and inspection with high-speed efficiency and precise accuracy.

3. Forklift Scanning and Inspections

One of the biggest headaches and time sinks for many forklift drivers is that they must manually scan pallet and item barcodes when they need to retrieve, move, and load inventory and packages. Sometimes, to get a proper read, they might even need to get out of the forklift, and that can be a dangerous safety risk in warehouses where forklifts, vehicles and robots might be constantly on the move.

Machine visions sensors offer a great alternative to this, by automatically scanning and verifying barcodes, items, packages and loading without manual scans.

For example, you can mount sensors on your forklifts, and they can provide accurate, long-range and reliable scanning as the forklift approaches a pallet. They automatically capture barcode data and transmit it to the forklift’s onboard computer, which saves time, helps reduce read errors and misloading, helps boost your forklift operators’ efficiency, and helps keep the operator safely in the cab.

Additionally, since machine vision sensors can read and decode text and labels, you can even use them to detect missing or misplaced labels, incorrect pallets or items, and stray or incorrect printing.

4. Dock Door Scanning, Tracking and Loading
Whether you’re loading or unloading, machine vision sensors are a great way to automate your dock door processes. You can mount them to your dock doors to automatically scan barcodes and ensure that the proper items and pallets are being received, cross-docked or loaded. Instead of mounting scanners to a forklift, you can simply mount sensors in an arch on either side of the dock door, and you have a permanent and always-on scanning and inspection solution.

When the forklift enters through the doorway, the sensors capture barcodes at high speeds and relay the data to the forklift’s onboard computer, which confirms that the correct pallet is being received, moved or loaded. There’s no need to stop and manually scan a barcode, and you can even use your sensors to verify that shipping labels are present, that they’re positioned and oriented correctly, and they have the right information.

In future articles, we’ll delve deeper into each of these applications, but if you’d like to learn more about how to use machine vision sensors and fixed industrial scanners to automate some of your warehouse and logistics processes, download our Zebra Ready Solutions guide and feel free to reach out to our automation technology experts.

At Automation Distribution, we’ve been helping warehouses, logistics companies, and manufacturers automate and error-proof processes since 1977, and we are happy to lend our expertise, solutions and insights. To get started, call us at 888-600-3080 or schedule a 15 minute call here.

Mar 21st 2024

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