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  • Writer's pictureDoug Schuchart

Leverage New Automation Technology for Intralogistics

Is your DC still struggling due to the pandemic e-commerce boom? Invest in flexible automation.

split tray sortation system for intralogistics

Now that 2020 is actually hindsight, we can clearly identify some significant insights and changes that resulted from an unexpected and unprecedented pandemic. One of the biggest lessons for intralogistics is the importance of automation.

The pandemic impacted intralogistics in two major ways, the first being a contraction of the labor market as COVID-19 spread across the country. The second (and even more profound) impact is the surge in e-commerce sales; its growth trajectory has changed significantly from pre-pandemic projections to levels that were previously not expected for another 4-6 years or more. This has also accelerated fulfillment models such as omnichannel and BOPIS (buy online, pick up in-store), all of which are increasing the requirements for, and not just the consideration of, automation. Companies that had not begun to automate before the pandemic are finding themselves behind and forced to catch up quickly to meet the changing outlook.

Retailers have traditionally relied heavily on significant amounts of manual labor to meet the requirements of brick-and-mortal store fulfillment. E-commerce fulfillment on the other hand often requires more complex automated systems, in part to meet the expectations of consumers who are now conditioned to expect next-day deliveries or even shorter, same-day delivery cycles.

Unlike typical ship-to-store where fulfillment can be combined with comparable product SKUs of similar size, shape, and weight, e-commerce and even BOPIS fulfillment deal with a large range of product SKUs that encompass numerous sizes and shapes to fulfill single orders. The larger the product range, the greater the range of product characteristics and combination possibilities that the automation systems must accommodate to fulfill individual orders. This requires more complex and more intelligent systems for picking and delivering products from inventory systems to the end of line fulfillment and shipping of individual parcels.

Automation technologies determine distribution and fulfillment center success

There are many types of automated equipment to meet the individual needs of the fulfillment center such as conveyors, sortation systems, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), robotic pick stations (GTR), and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) just to name a few. Consultants and integrators can assist companies in choosing the right equipment for their applications. The equipment itself, however, is just part of the equation. Not inconsequential is the under-the-hood automation technology that controls the various types of equipment. This technology factors into total cost of ownership, equipment support, and life-cycle considerations, as well as warehouse flexibility and modularity.

While the pandemic created a paradigm shift of sorts, one thing that never changes is the requirement for change. Hence, the automation needs to be adaptable to those continued changes and offer protections against obsolescence. In the age of digitization, or Industrie 4.0, the automation system also needs the capacity to locally collect, analyze, and share data horizontally across the fulfillment center and vertically to the enterprise and/or the cloud. This is important to both optimize the throughput of the fulfillment center as well as to predict equipment maintenance requirements in advance of failures to prevent unscheduled downtime and potential delivery delays. This is where traditional PLC technology falls short and PC-based solutions have a significant advantage.

PC-based machine controllers offer removable, expandable and even multiple media storage devices with RAID capabilities, enabling the implementation of large databases on the automation device alongside the machine control. Local analytics of the data enable quick decisions and adaptations as well as reduce the need for separate IPCs or edge devices. This also reduces the costs for data that must be hosted on separate servers or cloud storage. Localized data and analytics also facilitate advantages in remote troubleshooting of equipment, which allows maintenance to occur in a safer and more expedient manner.

Secure, optimized machine control with TwinCAT/BSD

Don’t think that you have to forego the security of a hardened PLC to gain the advantages of PC-based control technology. Recent news reflects the fragility of assuming that commonly used PLCs have no vulnerabilities. While PCs can employ security strategies that make them just as hardened as PLCs, perhaps even more so, Beckhoff has combined the benefits of both into its new TwinCAT/BSD operating system. Now companies can employ the benefits of PC-based control in a non-Windows operating environment with the security of a modern Unix-based system. While similar to modern PLCs, which today actually utilize real-time operating systems instead of firmware, Beckhoff’s machine controllers with TwinCAT/BSD are anything but typical of competitive offerings.

The TwinCAT automation platform from Beckhoff makes full use of modern multi-core processors by running multiple tasks in separate cores or even running multiple PLC instances in separate cores of the powerful multi-core machine controllers. Not only does the use of multiple cores enable the highest possible machine performance, but it also enables parallel processes that do not impact the performance of processes in other cores. It could, for instance, perform analytics and machine learning in a core separate from the machine control, or execute vision and robotics operating in their own cores of the same multi-core processor. The Beckhoff platform could even run a WCS (Warehouse Control Software) locally on the machine controller in its own independent processor core. In addition to large capacity media devices, as high as 2 terabytes, and high-performance processors, large amounts of memory (RAM) in Beckhoff machine controllers additionally make execution of all these tightly integrated applications in a single Beckhoff machine controller possible.

Automation is taking center stage in modern fulfillment centers. Beckhoff’s TwinCAT/BSD, along with EtherCAT and further Beckhoff products and technologies specifically designed for or well suited to material handling and intralogistics, is the right choice to modernize your automated warehouse equipment. Leading the industry in performance and flexibility, as well as protection from obsolescence, Beckhoff is the best partner to ensure your competitive advantage. As companies further automate fulfillment centers to meet the rapid growth of e-commerce fulfillment, Beckhoff is available to provide assistance.

Want to learn more about TwinCAT/BSD or other Beckhoff technologies well suited to intralogistics? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Doug Schuchart of Beckhoff Automation

Doug Schuchart is the Global Material Handling & Intralogistics Manager for Beckhoff Automation.


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