Online shopping has changed logistics forever

From conveying systems to packing robotics, the logistics and warehousing industry is one that has made use of automation for years to keep ahead of demand. Here, Stephen Hayes, managing director of Beckhoff UK, looks at the evolution of warehouse automation technology and new technological innovations helping the logistics industry.



The logistics industry always has been heavily reliant on manual labour. Yet for some years now we have seen a continuous shift towards the automation of logistics and warehousing processes, particularly driven by the rise of e-commerce during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Driven by the rise of order volumes, logistics companies introduced conveyors to ease manual labour and increase throughput. The logical next step was to use automation technology to solve problems associated with higher volumes of goods, such as conveyor blockages and made logistics processes more efficient. Automation increased the speed of fulfilment necessitated an effective automation control software, which was why Beckhoff developed the first PC-based machine controller in 1986.


Nowadays, fulfilment centres in particular face the challenge of ever-larger product selections, higher throughput volumes and smaller consignment sizes. The bigger the product selection, the more complicated the picking and packing of the possible combinations of products that a customer wants in the same parcel. Therefore, the setup of the sorting, picking and packing processes has become more difficult.


To stay adaptable in the face of ever-changing requirements of online orders, automation solutions need to be developed and customised for the exact requirements of each product. The decision of what a product is, how it needs to be packed, where it will be shipped to and in which combinations are the crucial questions that should guide the decisions as to what automation solutions should be purchased.


With automation technology, logistics managers have an opportunity to use automation to save a lot of time, money and make a crucial contribution to customer satisfaction. With the EP7402 EtherCAT Box, Beckhoff has developed a system of motor-driven roller control that is ideally suited to a wide variety of sorting systems. It can be programmed independently to get the most out of roller motion, such as on acceleration and deceleration ramps. The system is open access and works with motors from nearly all manufacturers.


For products that require fast changes, lots of combinations and careful handling, Beckhoff has developed a revolutionary motion control system that wafts products along on planes with the help of electromagnetic fields. The Beckhoff XPlanar consists of moving planes that are programmed on a grid system. Since the technology is frictionless and needs no rails it guarantees seamless motion and fast changeovers.


If moving planes sounds futuristic, perhaps a bit like logistics with drones, one might be led to believe that all new logistics innovations are going to be flashy rocket science. This could not be further from the truth. The most significant logistics improvements are going to be the small and incremental efficiency increases that happen every day. Thereby, automation technology helps to make the hard work of the logistics business a little bit less arduous every day.


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