FIEGE trials automated stocktaking with drones at its multi-user centre in Emmerich
Fully automated overnight stock checking without human intervention and a perfect set of data in your system the next day: Sensitive markets in particular – like those dedicated to food or pharmaceuticals – would rate this a crucial step. After all, improved data quality reduces shortages and contributes to avoiding frequent production interruptions. Yet for now, this remains a vision for most warehouses operated by humans only. FIEGE, on the other hand, is one step ahead here: Last weekend, we conducted a Proof of Concept at our location in Emmerich using the new stocktaking drone from doks. innovation GmbH. Subsidised by the EU and Bundesverband Deutsche Startups e.V., the company develops drone-assisted logistics solutions for stocktaking and transportation processes. For three days, the drone named inventAIRy® XL sailed across our warehouse at dizzying height to test its rotors. And the result was indeed satisfactory.
Reunion with an old friend
FIEGE is no stranger to the idea of drone-assisted stocktaking. “We dealt with this intensively as early as 2018 and while researching this option we came across the start-up, doks. innovation”, Felix Koch, Logistics Consultant at FIEGE recalls. A live trial of the first generation of drones at one of our logistics centres was even considered back then. However, technology had not quite matured to FIEGE standards at the time: “The multicopter could fly for very short periods of time only. Besides, you had to position the rotorcraft by hand from one aisle to the next”, Koch said, adding that “this was why the joint decision was taken to flag the project for a later follow-up and review the exit theory again.”
A lot has happened since, as July Wyszynski, Product Manager at doks. innovation GmbH knows: “We abandoned the idea of building the rotorcraft ourselves. Instead, we found outside partners for this. This allows us to dedicate our resources to the multicopter’s inside, its sensor system and software.” The aspiration to facilitate a completely autonomous drone operation including charging cycles, resulting in fully automated stocktaking within manual warehousing, is still the same.
Automated Stocktaking: A touch of George Lucas
The decisive novelty, however, is the ground unit which in the meantime has teamed up with the inventAIRy XL drone. The small Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) evokes images of the R2D2 droid known from the Star Wars movies and is similarly multi-talented: “A battery has been fitted to the intelligent system which powers the drone via a cabled connection. This enables flying times of up to five hours”, Wyszynski explains. When it comes to the market, this is something of a small revolution, the expert adds: “Being able to fly for such a long time is unique so far. Currently, the competition has nothing that is even remotely as market-ready as ours.”
The drone is connected to the battery-carrying ground unit via a cable.
This is also the very argument which doks. innovation used to convince FIEGE’s innovation team. Rika Voß, Junior Logistics Consultant at Fiege and part of the project team: “doks. innovation has hit the right nerve by combining a drone with AGV technology for an added advantage. That was the key issue which we initially found to be lacking.” However, after taking up talks again, the joint decision was made to pursue a use case. “We don’t just tacitly withdraw from promising projects. Instead, we continue to monitor their ongoing progress and re-evaluate the situation as time goes by”, is how Voß describes the department’s hands-on mentality.
Drone-assisted Automated stocktaking
The Proof of Concept looked like this: Stocktaking at the warehouse in Emmerich with its 30,000 pallet spaces requires three shifts and only three colleagues per shift on location – who, however, intervene in the event of an emergency only. The drone handles the actual job all by itself. Stefanie Weßing, Lean Manager at the Fiege location Emmerich and responsible for Consumer Goods, details the notable difference: “This would usually require considerable personnel resources.” inventAIRy XL’s fitted barcode scanner reads the necessary information on the pallet labels. These data are immediately processed and reconciled with pre-stocktaking levels from the Warehouse Management System. This is where the high-resolution images from the integrated camera with its 20 megapixels come into play.
The objective was demanding: Fully automated, error-free stocktaking was to be possible for a minimum 95 per cent of the warehouse. Possible discrepancies were systemically and gradually aligned and either corrected or confirmed via the drone’s photo data. For around one per cent of the places, incorrect or covered labels were expected to yield error messages. Additionally, the project team assumed that around 0.1 per cent of the pallets could not be read because of adhesive labels that had been torn off or which could not be read for other reasons. Wyszynski describes the approach: “In these cases, we manually fly over the area again and double-check the situation.” This option presents a tremendous advantage: “In the past you would have had to turn the entire warehouse upside down by hand. On top of this, there is always the risk of sending out the wrong pallet, which results in a huge organisational avalanche.”
Hovering automated stocktaking: the inventAIRy® XL in action.
Innovation: Mission accomplished
Periodic stocktaking and the Proof of Concept were finally conducted under strict hygiene protocols after having been postponed several times because of the Covid-19 pandemic. As for the location in Emmerich, Weßing knows that the result was solid: “Against this background it also proved ideal that, thanks to the drone, we were on site with clearly fewer staff.” The drone developers were satisfied with how things went: “There were a few minor issues, but generally speaking, everything worked just the way we had imagined it”, Wyszynski added. Felix Koch’s bottom line was also optimistic: “We gained valuable information which we will take our time to analyse. Even though the final result is still outstanding, we maintain our positive perspective towards drone-assisted stocktaking.”