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The future is now: robots and other promising innovations in the supply chain

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By Sponsor

28 Jun 2021

Business

When we talk about innovation in the fashion industry, we usually think about new fabrics, production methods or designs. But innovation is certainly also of the utmost importance in the supply chain, especially when improving business processes is concerned. There are currently a multitude of interesting developments in the pipeline; from robots that can help to optimise the return flow, to drones that produce an inventory of warehouse stocks. FashionUnited spoke to Kevin Paindeville, Innovation Manager at Bleckmann about the various different ways of realising improvements within the supply chain and about when innovations are, or aren’t appropriate.

Knowledge is power

As a logistics service provider for various (fashion) companies, Bleckmann is continuously looking for top-quality, innovative solutions. Not just in a bid to be more efficient, but also to be able to offer customers increased quality, Paindeville explains. “Data is absolutely crucial for us to be able to determine where, when and how we innovate - after all, we can’t do everything at once. That’s why we started a project a few years ago whereby we accumulate data from various internal applications, like our Warehouse Management System (WMS) and our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, in an enormous database. We subsequently use end-to-end reports to acquire an insight into all our processes: where are we doing well and where could improvements possibly be realised? In which areas could we increase efficiencies and be even more effective? Whilst keeping a firm focus on our customers’ interests.”

Robots in the warehouse

For example, a study into the possible use of robots in the warehouse. This research showed that between sixty and seventy percent of the work conducted in the warehouse consists of walking between racking, Paindeville stated. “This isn’t only tiring, but pretty monotonous as well. We introduced a Hikrobot robot together with Superdry. This moves around the racking and is capable of lifting and moving mobile racks. A scan will tell the robot exactly whether it needs to place or pick a product. Any returned items can easily be stored at the indicated locations and are subsequently quickly available to sell again.” This automation has increased Superdry’s return processing efficiency by 400 percent. Superdry and Bleckmann are now planning to expand the use of robot systems, following the successful pilot project last year.

Producing inventories with drones

Bleckmann will be launching another three-month pilot project in August with a different type of robot: a drone for producing inventories of goods in the warehouse’s reserve zone. Normally, someone would need to manually scan all the barcodes at the location and on the boxes for this purpose. This is incredibly time-consuming. “We want to find out to what extent technology can assist us in this process. We will be doing this with a drone which is linked to a robot on the ground with a large battery. This battery will ensure the drone remains airborne and can continuously scan for up to five hours at a time.” This intelligent drone has a map of the warehouse at its disposal, which means it doesn't need to be controlled. It can therefore work at various times when the warehouse isn’t active and stock levels remain constant. This makes this technology very promising, as you could produce a correct comparison every night and therefore; quickly anticipate any stock variances and take action.

Making a difference

The practical examples above show that robots can be of great added value to process optimisations. However, this doesn’t change the fact that Bleckmann will always carefully analyse and decide whether or not technology is useful for its customers, and whether it is worth the investment costs. “The approach needs to be very pragmatic. We will always prepare a meticulous business case beforehand, in which we compare various scenarios. Questions which will always be asked include: will the investment result in sufficient qualitative and quantitative advantages, is it interesting from a price point of view and is it good for people? We subsequently conduct a trial concept in collaboration with the customer, in order to test the innovation on a small scale. The ultimate goal is not to replace humans with robots as much as possible, but instead to support them. This means they won’t need to do as much repetitive work and can focus on tasks where they can really make a difference.”

Out-of-the-box

Innovation is a constant element in everything Bleckmann do, the team thinks out-of-the-box too. This recently became apparent, when training on site for a British customer wasn’t possible due to the Covid limitations. The Microsoft HoloLens offered a solution. “These are smart glasses which use mixed reality: it places a virtual layer over reality”, Paindeville enthusiastically explains. “This technology allowed us to still remotely monitor a specific process with this particular customer - and we were able to offer coaching and assistance where necessary. We now also use the HoloLens to offer potential new customers, who are not able to physically visit us, a look around our company. We are currently also looking into whether we can use the HoloLens at companies in other ways, for example to faster train those warehouse employees who are not yet familiar with the location.”

For more information, visit: www.bleckmann.com