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Intralogistics, a component of the larger supply chain, focuses specifically on the flow of information and goods within the walls of a plant itself. It’s a concept that’s received more attention in recent years as a key component of building a competitive advantage into supply chain management.

Figure 1. Automated guided vehicles like this one can be used to maneuver within small warehouse spaces. Source: Carmenter/CC BY-SA 4.0Figure 1. Automated guided vehicles like this one can be used to maneuver within small warehouse spaces. Source: Carmenter/CC BY-SA 4.0Intralogistics can be thought of as the foundation of an “intelligent warehouse” — one that operates not only efficiently and productively, but also responsively to ever-shifting conditions of supply and demand.

Most of the components of an intralogistics management system are fully internal to the organization, which increases the feasibility of controlling them. Some of the most significant types of controls include data management, machine automation and automation software.

Data management in the warehouse setting is generally based around barcodes or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, either of which can be read and recorded in order to track objects as they move throughout the warehouse trajectory, from the receiving dock to storage bins to picking, packing and shipping. While barcodes are read by optical scanners, RFID tags are read by electromagnetic fields – a key difference because RFID eliminates the need for line-of-sight recognition. RFID tags can be embedded directly into a tracked object, as well.

Machine automation can take many forms within the intralogistics landscape. Conveyors and sorters can be automated by data input, for instance. Robots can be used for palletization and packaging. Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) are portable robots capable of moving objects throughout the warehouse that can be guided by laser targets, embedded transponders or other technologies. Amazon Robotics uses AGVs to assist human pickers with order fulfillment. The MIT Technology Review recently featured a robot that draws upon neural network training to grasp and manipulate objects, including ones it has never seen before; it comes close to human capacity for order picking, and the technology will likely exceed human capabilities as it continues to develop.

Automation software brings all the pieces together. In addition to integrating different types of machines to one another, software can also be used for decision-making tasks such as where to store and receive product containers and how to assign shipments to outgoing transportation. These capabilities make the entire system responsive to changing conditions.

The increased emphasis on intralogistics management has been fueled by technological advances that can increase efficiency, productivity and responsiveness by several orders of magnitude. By serving as a foundation for the intelligent warehouse, intralogistics has the potential to drive numerous sectors of industry to the next level.