Autonomous Material Handling and Dock Equipment Data Gathering Technology Pair Well to Improve Efficiency and Safety

Not that long ago, the typical working environment inside a warehouse, distribution center or manufacturing facility looked and operated dramatically different than it does today.

Manually-driven and operated forklifts, tuggers and pallet jacks, along with sheer muscle power, were the go-to methods for moving goods around a facility.

While such equipment is still heavily used — especially at the dock — high-tech automation is  being relied on more and more to reduce costs as well as increase efficiency and safety. The use of robotic autonomous material handling equipment, though, is rapidly growing beyond the dock area itself.

The growing use of AGVs and HMI

One of the most noticeable new technologies, due a great deal to current labor shortages, is the increased use of self-driving AGVs (automated guided vehicles).

Without the need for an onboard operator or driver, AGVs either follow pre-determined routes via some kind of built-in floor infrastructure (e.g., markers or wires), laser or LiDAR (light detection and ranging), or even using vision-guided technology which is growing and completely infrastructure-free.

In addition, the expanding use of material handling equipment that features a human machine interface, or HMI, presents a multitude of benefits. Among them is the ability to capture data and intelligence on how specific equipment is being used.

Britannica essentially defines HMI as being “based on an understanding and appreciation of human physical, mental and behavioral capabilities.”

Industry Week’s recent article, “HMI as gateway to data-driven operations”, dives much deeper. Data that was once untapped or lost in complexity can be brought to life through modern HMI software integrated with information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) systems. Any HMI’s value doesn’t end at the operator interface. Rather, it can and should extend into your information architecture for easier and more robust information-sharing and decision-making.

Technology also expanding at the dock

While AGVs, for example, are a great solution for autonomous material handling, they have one distinct limitation: their lack of autonomous operation at the dock itself.

For an AGV to load and unload trailers, dock personnel must take over the AGV and operate it manually before it even travels over the dock leveler. That’s because the technology just isn’t available yet for autonomous trailer loading and unloading.

And while dock equipment itself — including levelers, doors, and restraints — are not necessarily being impacted by robotic technology, they have their own distinct technology that pairs well with all of the various forms of autonomous material handling.

New Digital Master Control Panel features HMI

Entrematic’s latest advances in dock technology include the new Kelley Digital Master Control Panel along with its own HMI. Similar to advances in autonomous material handling, its goal too is to help enhance safe and efficient dock operation.

The Kelley Digital Master Control Panel streamlines dock operations by combining operations across multiple pieces of dock equipment while providing increased overall control, insight as well as decision-making intelligence.

While the first generation of Kelley dock control panels has been well-known for decades for their dependency and longevity, they pose several challenges including multiple buttons and lights, a seemingly non-linear sequence of operation and no onboard data capture.

Guided operational sequence

In contrast, the Kelley Digital Master Control Panel features:

  • a guided sequence of operations
  • an intuitive graphic interface
  • color and shape status light
  • zero dependence on language
  • onboard data and diagnostics
  • password access and override
  • time-at-dock timer
  • and is network integration ready.

Central to the Kelley Digital Master Control Panel is its durable backlit HMI screen. The highly responsive display provides an intuitive-guided sequence of operations that can be customized to operate any combination of dock equipment, including levelers, doors, and restraints. Large intuitive buttons can even be operated while wearing heavy gloves. The Digital Master Control Panel is available as a retrofit or new installation.

In addition, the Digital Master Control Panel’s ultra-bright composite LED trailer presence light is unmistakable even by those individuals who may be color blind, utilizing shapes and flashes to indicate the presence of a trailer at the dock, status of the restraint, and other operations.

Integration benefits everyone

As autonomous material handling and dock equipment technology continues to evolve in the coming years, it will become increasingly integrated with ongoing efforts to drive both increased efficiency and safety. That’s a win-win for both companies and their employees.