Addressing Labor Shortages with Automation
With an aging and rapidly declining population, Japan’s industries are facing severe labor shortages. A recent economic report by the Bank of Japan noted that the logistics sector is particularly at-risk. Retail, warehousing, and distribution firms throughout Japan and other parts of Asia rely on IHI Industrial Logistics and Machinery to help them solve the labor challenge by automating material handling using AS/RS and robotic systems.
One of the most common, yet back-breaking tasks in the sector is depalletizing boxes for order picking. In many facilities, employees manually move the heavy boxes from pallet to conveyor. According to Takayuki Nakayama, IHI’s Digital Transformation Manager, automation for this type of work has been difficult to apply. Systems often cannot identify and pick boxes reliably, and require employees to pre-register the pallet for the system to recognize any boxes. This pre-registration process can be tedious and time-consuming, and is generally ineffective due to the large variety of SKUs that need to be picked. With traditional automated systems, customers can handle fewer than 10% of the boxes and pallets seen in their facilities, greatly reducing usability and the return on investment. Further, challenging lighting and warehouse conditions cause problems for these traditional automation techniques. IHI needed a flexible, easy-to-deploy solution that could handle the wide variety of boxes at customer sites with no need for pre-registration of each box.
“Pick’s ease of use and its ability to be trained with just a few samples of boxes from our customers resulted in a very quick on premise installation.”
- Takayuki Nakayama, Digital Transformation Manager, IHI
A Solution with Vision
In 2017, IHI started to integrate the Pick vision solution, consisting of an industrial PC and the Pick KS1000 2D/3D camera, for order-picking in customer warehouses and distribution centers. Pick’s deep-learning capability allows it to accurately locate boxes on pallets in challenging lighting conditions without any pre-registration of boxes or pallets. The Pick vision solution was trained with a few samples of boxes from IHI’s customers and the system was quickly installed.
“Pick’s ease of use and its ability to be trained with just a few samples of boxes from our customers resulted in a very quick on premise installation,” says Nakayama-san.
A Motoman MPL-100 II robot with a vacuum End-of-Arm Tool was integrated with the Pick software to pick boxes from two locations on each side of the robot. IHI also integrated their Warehouse Control System (WCS) to transmit box orders to the Pick system as pallets arrived at each location.
Success That Scales
In the two years since IHI’s initial integration with Pick, the company has deployed the system at multiple customer sites across Japan where it is working multiple shifts and picking thousands of boxes every day completely autonomously. With occasional training on hard-to-identify boxes, Pick’s deep learning model has reached over 99.9% detection reliability on IHI’s customer sites. Additionally, the system’s advanced calibration and motion planning capabilities make for very short integration timelines. Additional systems have been up and running within a few hours of installation in the warehouse.
“Using the Pick solution, IHI’s customers have been able to free up employees to perform more value-added and less laborious tasks inside the warehouses, says Takayuki Nakayama. “Based on this success, IHI has been able to attract new customers and quickly and easily integrate Pick into their operations.”
IHI Industrial Logistics and Machinery (ILM) produces and installs material handling equipment including AS/RS and robotic systems for industrial, retail and distribution customers in Japan and other parts of Asia. ILM is a wholly owned subsidiary of the HI Corporation Ltd, a comprehensive heavy-industry manufacturer working to create value for customers in four main areas—Resource, Energy and Environment; Social Infrastructure and Offshore Facilities; Industrial Systems and General-purpose Machinery; and Aero Engine, Space and Defense.