By Nikolaus Fecht
Are there enough supplies? Karl Denz, team leader for development at Gebhardt Fördertechnik GmbH, and product manager Yannick Maier are standing on an iron platform, observing the work of the high bay warehouse. They are watching the analysis of the completely digitalized and networked warehouse in Sinsheim, Baden, on two gigantic flat screens. When the dashboard gives the all-clear, they relax. Filled anywhere between 88 and 98 percent of total capacity, the smart warehouse is well utilized, while all conveyor systems - from the storage and retrieval machines to the mobile transport robots - are in good order. To gain a better overview, team leader Denz opens the digital twin, a 3D model of the warehouse with all data, with a click of the mouse. It virtually simulates the current state of the warehouse and also serves as a planning assistant, for instance when expanding the systems.
Beneath them, the employees at the conveyor belts and in the high bay warehouse come and go. Some of them briefly look up toward the quietly hovering drone that provides the film and photographic images. "Drones are nothing new for our staff. We use the smart warehouse as a test bed for our Internet of Things, or IoT, and the media are not the only ones keenly interested in it," explains CEO Marco Gebhardt, adding that customers and competitors have also visited.
"Digitalization was much easier for us as a logistics company," he reports. It all began in 2010 with the development of a self-driving, autonomous conveyor system, which was created in collaboration with Prof. Kai Furmans, head of the Institute for Material Handling and Logistics at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). An Industrie 4.0 system that covers operations to the greatest possible extent has gradually been built up since then. "It is clear to me that we can no longer simply bend iron like in the olden days, but we have to continue developing, both in regards to ourselves, as well as our processes," comments Gebhardt, who enjoys state-of-the-art technology so much that he now uses Alexa to control much of his home - from the TV to the blinds.
This enthusiasm for experimentation when it comes to all things high-tech, combined with the innovative spirit that permeates the region, are tangible throughout the entire company. The strategy is to first make our own experiences, and then develop the right platform. "We want to make all of our internal processes paperless, insofar it is possible," says Gebhardt, outlining the concept.
For instance, algorithms in the cloud analyze the state of a storage and retrieval machine. The employees then use this information to decide how potential damage can be remedied. Thanks to digital controls and monitoring, the transparent warehousing system is becoming ever more efficient. The company also recently began offering its solution to operators of intralogistics systems.
Repair and maintenance with augmented reality
The high bay warehouse demonstrates how the IoT works in practice. Team leader Denz puts on the augmented reality (AR) glasses, raises a finger and gesticulates in the air - as if he were grasping an object.
Company boss Gebhardt shows us Denz' view in the conference room. In a YouTube video, a defective drive element appears as a 3D model, while additional audio or text files assist the service technician in repairing or maintaining it. The technician is given step-by-step support: "Maintenance required - replace current collector." A click of the fingers provides the required knowledge: "Release the locking mechanism at the base. Carefully remove the current collector from the bracket. Repeat the steps for the second current collector."
This makes the work of the service technician much easier. Gebhardt wants to harness this form of digitalization to tackle the shortage of specialist staff more effectively. He points out of the window at the nearby soccer stadium, which is adorned by the name of SAP among other well-known sponsors. "As a medium-sized company, we are competing with attractive corporations for the best specialist employees. And we are not only short of computer scientists, but also technicians." He adds that every customer visit that is saved makes the jobs of service staff a little bit easier. After all, the objective is not to replace employees, but to use them more efficiently.
Digitalization offers more attractive workplaces
Despite this, not every employee was convinced of the digital path from the very beginning, however, the majority now accept this approach. Gebhardt explains: "Digitalization creates more attractive workplaces, meaning there was also no resistance from the works council. We continuously train our employees and have employed instructors in order to explain the new technology better." And the holistic concept is a successful one: Auditing and consultancy firm Ernst & Young (EY) confirmed the quality of the Baden company’s IoT system in 2018. Gebhardt Fördertechnik GmbH claimed the prize for Germany’s best family-owned medium-sized company in the "Digital Transformation" category.
But even they encounter their limits, which in Gebhardt's case manifest themselves in the company's workshop-oriented production processes. Their production facilities have all the hustle and bustle of a factory: Staff all around us are drilling, screwing, sawing, and hammering. Visitors are struck by the smell of sweat. Specialist Marvin Eisele has just started a laser, which is now cutting sheet metal parts to size in a program-controlled process. "The work here is still performed separately on the two Trumpf systems," regrets Gebhardt. "But in the long term we also want to digitally link the Trumpf control systems with an IoT system."
The switch from a standalone system to a networked one is just one step, however. In the long run, the Baden-based pioneer is aiming to achieve digitalization that breaks down the boundaries between manual work and automation. With this in mind, the company participates in projects with the objective of using information from manufacturing execution systems (MES). This will then make it easier to plan the statuses of production systems. CEO Gebhardt is concentrating on optimizing the use of logistics with the help of artificial intelligence programs and machine learning. The visionary’s idea is as follows: "In the future, it would be conceivable for someone to use the IoT to plan the storage of beachwear more efficiently up to the summer, and then switch the system to Advent wreaths. But that's still something for the future, as it would require new, scalable and more flexible logistics systems that can be switched over quickly from shipment by pallet to cardboard boxes."