Automatic data collection and succinct visualizations that identify problem points as they arise in real time are the key to boost the efficiency of dock loading. Implementing such solutions has been hard in the past, since computer vision techniques solely based on camera images struggle to provide adequate accuracy when attempting to estimate trailer fullness and other key load metrics. These cameras aren’t refined enough to factor in, or adjust to, the often-challenging lighting conditions and cluttered environment inside trailers.
That is why edge processing devices such as Zebra’s Load Monitoring Unit (LMU) combine cameras with 3D sensors to collect depth information within the trailer. The 3D sensors are less affected by bad lighting and can generate richer “scene” data.” In turn, they provide the accurate – and complete – data sets needed to estimate key load performance indicators, such as trailer fullness, height of each package wall and ceiling gaps in real-time. Solutions such as the LMU also include a processing unit, a tool that enables the collected camera and 3D sensor data to be processed on the device itself. This enables edge analytics, which is crucial both to support real-time detection and to avoid sending large amounts of data to a backend server.
However, the LMU is only one part of the advanced trailer monitoring systems that are now empowering T&L organizations to better manage the deluge of packages they are handling on a daily basis. In scenarios where the Zebra SmartPack™ Trailer monitoring system is utilized, for example, captured trailer images and processed data is sent by the LMU to a backend server where an analytics engine calculates metrics such as load density, trailer fullness and load status in real time. Data from the customer’s package sortation system can then be integrated to capture additional metrics such as package volume or weight. The server then processes the load status information with business logic to create visualizations presented to dock managers on a user-friendly dashboard via ruggedized tablets, kiosks or monitors with customizable alarms. For example, loads with current load density lower than 60 percent may be flagged so that dock managers can address and fix the problem before the end of the load. Systems such as SmartPack also enable the generation of predictive alerts, i.e. "if the loader goes on loading in this manner, this trailer's load density will be low." In fact, an independent analysis of data revealed that, on average, trailers realized a 2-4 percent improvement in load volume efficiency using SmartPack technology. Depending on the size of the business, these improvements could yield significant cost savings across loading operations.
Loading dock of the (near) future
Gripping and maneuvering capabilities of warehouse robots are maturing fast and many predict that, in the future, loading activities at the dock door will be completely automated. Until that time, package loaders, dock managers and line-haul operators need all the help they can get to run their operations in an optimal way to handle the fast-increasing package traffic. The decade-long research and field experience of Zebra’s technical team in understanding and solving this “parcel problem” suggests that using 3D sensors, alongside cameras, provides the necessary accuracy to support solutions that will boost dock loading efficiency. Real-time monitoring systems such as SmartPack Trailer have been shown to increase both loading speed and load density.
But that is not the whole story: once real-time load data from a solution such as the SmartPack Trailer system is available, customers quickly discover that the possible operational efficiency gains enabled by access to this data go far beyond load speed and load density. Package damage can be reduced and loss prevention can be better implemented. Package loader safety can also be boosted through detection of workers’ poses in lifting packages.
It is often said, “You are what you measure.” Players in the T&L industry are quickly finding out that to meet emerging challenges – such as increasing package traffic, emerging competitors and environmental concerns – they need more detailed real-time data from the loading dock and intuitive visualization of this data. 3D technology, incorporated into full monitoring solutions like SmartPack Trailer, will help them out.
Editor's Note: Interested in learning more about Zebra's intelligent loading solutions? Contact us.