Supply Chain

Recording warehouse inventory more precisely with drones

Accurate inventories are a basic prerequisite for optimal warehouse processing. In order to record inventories efficiently, the Körber Business Area Supply Chain is working with a start-up on a solution that involves drones.

Sometimes progress looks like a large insect: four slender legs, thin wings, and two circular cameras reminiscent of compound eyes. With these cameras, an approximately one-kilogram drone is scanning the shelves of a high-bay warehouse as it hovers six meters above the floor. Its job is to answer two questions that are central to all logistics providers: What items do we still have in inventory? And where are they?

“For our customers, stock reliability is a major issue in warehouse management,” says Dr. Kerstin Höfle, Vice President Portfolio & Innovation Management at the Körber Business Area Supply Chain. Short delivery times with high adherence to delivery dates and delivery quality as well as strict service and cost orientation are only some of the challenges. In addition, there is often a lack of the necessary resources to keep track of all goods movements.

lWe want to keep our finger on the pulse of the times, so close dialogue with researchers is a given for us, and it’s very much in the interest of our customers.r

Dr. Kerstin Höfle, Vice President Portfolio & Innovation Management at Körber Supply Chain Automation

Drones can even detect individual T-shirts in boxes

But logistics providers think they’ve come up with a clever and practical solution: drones. Experts from the Business Area Supply Chain are devoting careful study to an aerial solution. One of the companies that has turned to Körber for help is a French underwear manufactuer.

The customer wanted a drone that reads the RFID tags of individual pieces of clothing — even when they are still packed in boxes. For their approach to a solution, the Körber experts teamed up with the Doks start-up. Doks specializes in the digitization of stocktaking and inventory processes, master data management, and short-distance transportation in intralogistics. Among other products, the creative minds at Doks supply the drone solution Inventairy, the perfect building block for the Körber solution. “The drones available on the market up to now only scan the labels of individual pallets,” says Doks CEO Benjamin Federmann. But thanks to its modular structure, Inventairy can also read so-called RFID tags, which are identified by means of electromagnetic waves. The reason this is so useful is that it allows individual products to be tracked along the entire supply chain.

The collaboration with Doks and the customer is a good example of how Körber approaches innovations. Doks was founded in 2017 in the surroundings of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics (IML). And Körber’s technology expert Höfle carries on a regular dialogue with the IML. “We want to keep our finger on the pulse of the times, so close dialogue with researchers is a given for us, and it’s very much in the interest of our customers,” Höfle says. “Keeping my eyes and ears open and thinking outside the box is an important part of my job and incredibly fun for me personally,” she adds.

When the battery charge runs out, the drone lands on a mobile charging station for recharging, which drives autonomously through the warehouse.
With a tablet the stocktaking can be planned and started.

is how long drones will be able to fly for

They are connected to the charging station by a cable. A corresponding model is already being tested.

Test quickly, improve constantly

In the next step, Körber will adapt the Inventairy solution to the needs of the customer. “First and foremost, the job is to make sure that everything that’s recorded by the drones can be automatically synchronized with the Warehouse Management System (WMS),” says Höfle. “Building interfaces like that is what we do best.”

When the first Inventairy RFID drone started its maiden flight in the customer's warehouse, there was great excitement. A whole day long, it hovered between the racks, used a 360° camera to take photographs of pallets or shelves, and scanned the RFID tags of individual products. During this trial, some new challenges emerged: “If 150 undershirts were stacked together in a box, the signals initially overlapped,” recalls Doks CEO Federmann. Nevertheless, the drones recognized 96 percent of the tags — an impressive number.

“When such complex demands are involved, it’s inevitable that there will be a bit of calibration after the real-time test,” says Höfle. In fact, that is a basic part of the development process, because the use of drones in warehouses represents a fundamentally new way of thinking when it comes to the implementation of innovative ideas. “In former days, you would have first evaluated the market and compared technologies. A year might easily have passed before the first test phase,” says Höfle. “Today we take a pragmatic approach: We try things out as soon as possible, then steadily make improvements. And our customers love it!”

The drones can capture codes laterally and from above.

Making perfect use of available warehouse space

The new technology enables huge gains in efficiency. In a warehouse with 50,000 storage bays, on average three employees are continually occupied with locating goods. “Drones could reduce the costs of this manual stocktaking by as much as 70 percent,” says Höfle. That doesn’t mean that the warehouse workers become redundant — they take over jobs that are more helpful and productive. The efficiency of the drones can be increased further thanks to an added feature currently being developed. In the future, they will be connected by a cable to an AGV charging station that will automatically drive along with the drone. This will greatly increase the operating time.

Innovation expert Höfle sees great potential in these little helpers buzzing around — especially in the underlying technologies, such as RFID scanning: “I’m looking forward to exploring the possibilities further with our existing customers and potential new ones,” he says.

Dr. Kerstin Höfle - Vice President Portfolio & Innovation Management at Körber Supply Chain Automation

Dr. Kerstin Höfle
Vice President Portfolio & Innovation Management at Körber Supply Chain Automation

Back to top
Back to top