When you close your eyes and imagine what a factory or warehouse will look like in 10 years, what do you see? If you're like us, that vision is bursting with motion, from cobots furiously picking and placing the line, AMRs determinedly whizzing underfoot, and drones darting overhead from point to point like bees seeking out the next trove of pollen. These flying workers aren't much used in manufacturing yet, but the use cases are growing. We'll be highlighting one of those, inventory scanning, on the show floor center stage at the IndustryWeek Manufacturing & Technology Conference & Expo, on May 9 at 10:30 a.m., following a presentation on industrial smartglasses by RealWear Inc.
The premise is pretty simple: attach a ring scanner to a little drone and you don't have to have a worker climb up on a ladder. An average of 2,000 people fall off ladders per day, so minimizing risk is an obvious plus. But the speed factor of having a flying robot versus a methodical human working at height making sure they don't fall is the real reason managers are looking forward to the day drones become commonplace.
The demo will be performed by Wilstair, a technology integration consulting firm capable of partnering with clients to safely integrate drones as productive tools inside warehouses, distribution centers, manufacturing facilities. Presenter Will Stavanja founded the Raleigh company in 2015. He is a mechanical aerospace engineer experienced in product and process improvement integration strategies, and holds a 14 CFR Part 107 certification to operate drones commercially and serves as an adjunct instructor at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh.
We asked Stavanja about what to expect and why this is one event that will open your eyes to new possibilities.
NED: How did you get involved in this field?
WS: I spent the first 15 years of my career working with a large retailer to improve fulfillment of product services, which exposed me to the logistical challenges that vendors faced when attempting to deliver products or parts in a timely manner. Since becoming an engineer, I’ve worked on autonomous aerial projects ranging from medical delivery to tethered surveillance aerial units for law enforcement. It was during one of these projects that I was approached to asses and understand why drones struggle to navigate autonomously inside GPS denied environments, like warehouses or distribution centers.
At the time, the thought of integrating a single aircraft to conduct cycle counts did not seem like a cumbersome task. However, in order to safely operate drones (manually or autonomously) inside confined spaces, like very narrow aisles (VNAs) , a thoroughly organized system of systems (SOS) and operational procedures were required to accomplish such flights.
NED: What will you be doing on stage?
WS: We will use a narrow and short mockup rack placed at the center of the stage filled with boxes with various barcodes. During the demo, we will use one of our test drones to read 1D and 2D barcodes and display the raw data captured on a monitor. For safety reasons, the demonstration will be performed by flying the aircraft manually by the presenter at a low altitude from the floor of the stage. The aircraft will be in the air for no more than three to four minutes during the demo, and the remaining time of the presentation will include discussing the challenges, considerations, and benefits of using such technology inside warehouses, distribution centers, or manufacturing facilities.
NED: Why is it relevant to manufacturing right now?
WS: Keeping valuable employees from avoiding ladder or scissor lift accidents is by far the greatest value of using drones as tools inside warehouses, distribution centers, or manufacturing facilities. Whether the drone is used to perform inventory management cycle counts, or it is used to live stream remote manufacturing equipment inspections to service providers located overseas, the increase in operational productivity is not their only value. The relevance of using drones inside 3PLs or manufacturing facilities will vary by the layout of such facilities and the operational needs of the organization. The use of drones is not always the right solution approach, which is why we partner with our clients to evaluate their needs and assess the facilities where they intend to use these drones.
NED: What’s the most exciting benefit?
WS: Safety does not always seem like an exciting benefit, but when you read the fall related OSHA accident reports, many could have been avoided by keeping those valuable employees off ladders or scissor lifts in the first place. Yes, these flying robots can scan inventory at faster rates than having a number of employees climb up and down ladders to scan long aisles. From an operational perspective, using drones as tools to increase the rate of cycle counts and avoid accident related injuries can yield exciting benefits to most companies.
NED: Where do you think this tech will be in five years?
WS: There are three key improvement factors of this technology that many clients are looking for today, and that we are confident that we will see in the next five years:
1. Smaller and lightweight sensors for vehicle navigation and image recognition
2. Improvement of battery technology
3. Reduction of aircraft size
With today’s driverless vehicle technology improvements, sensors continue to improve in accuracy and form factor, which will benefit drone technology in parallel. Furthermore, in-flight autonomous navigation precision is subject to improve in confined spaces with improvements in on-board computing processing power. Lastly, as the demand for autonomous vehicles increase we will see a reduction in cost for multi-aircraft swarm systems.
NED: What do you hope attendees will take away from this demo?
WS: Aerial robotics not only plays a role in the warehouse or manufacturing facility of the future, they are already here. If properly integrated into an organization’s operating structure they can quickly serve as valuable tools. The key is in the planning and operational integration of the technology. Buying any drone and thinking that it can deliver similar results is the wrong approach. Not all facilities are made equal, and neither are the payloads or sensors used on these special drones.