ULVILA, Finland — Today's tire industry is facing unprecedented challenges in distribution, stemming from both the marketplace and within the four walls of their distribution centers.
Namely, consumers now demand greater speed and availability of goods. Many are millennials who are used to the ecommerce experience, where they can get exactly what they want and when they want it.
This places significant pressure on distribution centers to make sure they not only can keep retail locations well stocked, but also fulfill new online orders.
Distribution centers now have to accommodate a growing number of SKUs, as manufacturers continue to expand their variety of consumer and commercial tire offerings. Tire dealers must now find ways to utilize their existing storage space better and maintain the efficient movement of a heightened number of goods within their limited space.
These modern challenges require modern solutions. Dealers must adapt, especially as the rest of the tire industry embraces the next generation of technology at the intersection of robotics, computers and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Collectively, these technologies make up the fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0.
The first industrial revolution came out of the birth of mechanization and the advent of the steam engine.
The second was powered by the use of electricity and the invention of electric motors, which enabled the mass production of goods.
In recent years, robots, microchips and computers gave rise to the third industrial revolution, increasing processing capacity in society and industry.
Now, the fourth — Industry 4.0 — sees robots, computers and the IoT converging to create new cyberphysical environments, where companies can use automation to speed and scale up repeatable tasks, as well as use sensors to capture data on what automated tools and robots are doing and how they are performing.
Businesses can then use the captured data to find ways to improve upon processes or reorganize robotic operations in real time. Industry 4.0 is creating smarter, data-driven enterprises with the ability to pivot and innovate as needed.
It is set to disrupt virtually every industry, including tire manufacturing and distribution, and accelerate the pace of business.
In the modern Industry 4.0-enabled distribution center, dealers can control as well as track and trace products from receiving, through storage and all the way to the loading dock for outbound shipping.
Two webs make up the cyberphysical environment: the physical network of hardware and the cyber network that ties everything together through the seamless flow of data.
The physical network of automated systems includes automated guided vehicles (AGVs), mobile robots, gantry robots, articulated robots, monorail transfers, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), conveyors, etc. These systems can move tires between receiving, storage, preparation and loading with high precision and accuracy.
Notably, using high-density storage and an AS/RS, dealers can house more products in up to 50 percent less space, which can help address the proliferation of SKUs.
And thanks to the speed of robotics, they can implement just-in-time order picking and send tires in the right sequence to outbound shipping trucks within minutes of their arrival, rather than hours in advance.
This minimizes the space needed for preparing orders and truck turnaround times. The hardware is outfitted with barcode readers, vision systems, laser scanners or other technologies that collect and send sensory data to software in the cyber network.
In the Industry 4.0 distribution center, all automated equipment and subsystems are connected to higher-level, internet-enabled control systems that are able to assess and control performance.
For instance, Warehouse Control Systems (WCSs) can take real-time sensory data to guide the movement of machines for optimized intralogistics, improved inventory management and maximized throughput, whether a dealer is shipping tires to retail stores or directly to the consumer.
With the right combination of automated technology, sensors and advanced control systems, distribution centers can capture data to understand their processes, run analyses and use the results better to improve material flow.
They can thus have total control over the tires within their physical facilities and readily accommodate changes to an individual order or demand in the market as a whole.
All this talk about cyberphysical systems and real-time data flow may seem initially daunting for the uninitiated. Industry 4.0 may sound like a far-off consideration to look into later in the future.
In truth, companies can start taking steps forward now using a modular approach that gradually scales up investments by installing cellular automation one step at a time.
Many of these technologies can fit into existing operations as islands of automation. Dealers can introduce more Industry 4.0 hardware and software and gradually connect the cells together.
This kind of phased implementation is easier to manage, keeps costs low and delivers quick returns on investment. If unsure where to start, dealers can look toward their systems' supplier to assess operations and develop a rollout plan to move towards the automated, data-driven tire distribution center of the future.
Don Heelis is a mechanical engineer and sales manager for Cimcorp Oy, an Ulvila, Finland-based manufacturer and integrator of turnkey robotic gantry-based order fulfillment and tire handling solutions. Mr. Heelis helps customers develop fully automated systems that increase efficiency, accuracy and throughput for warehouses and distribution centers.