Using big data to solve problems

big data

A distribution center struggling with a high number of forklift truck impacts found a way to leverage big data to address a nagging, costly warehouse issue. The company had installed a telematics solution on its forklift trucks, but could not determine the cause of the impacts. The time and location of impacts were known, as well as the identity of the drivers involved, but the company still needed to pull in more data sources for an effective assessment.

Forget for a moment the potential of adopting big data analytics throughout the entire supply chain and consider instead how big data can untangle and integrate seemingly unrelated masses of data to solve small problems in a warehouse or distribution center. That’s exactly what this company did.

By analyzing the link between environmental factors inside the distribution center and the forklift impact records, the culprit was swiftly identified: fast-moving thunderstorms that caused the humidity level to rise so quickly that the dehumidifiers could not keep up, increasing the risk of drivers losing control on the slippery concrete floor. That knowledge helped the company prevent sliding accidents by using a function of the telematics solution to reduce the maximum speed of the trucks when the humidity hit a certain level.

Indeed, distribution centers and warehouses present ideal environments — microcosms — for big data applications. Modern facilities are loaded with sensors and detectors to track every pallet and every piece of material handling equipment in real-time. Managers see the benefits in increased productivity, improved inventory flow, optimized equipment usage, and more. However, for that Eureka moment, organizations should also apply big data analytics across these multiple sources of data to uncover patterns that will drive even more, and perhaps surprising, operational improvements.

Rather than looking at data in isolation, a holistic approach holds significantly more power. Managers typically keep careful track of the performance of lift trucks, batteries, and chargers. But it is not until those entities are reviewed as a single system and matched with data coming off the lift trucks that a new level of revelations can be had.

Look for big data analytics to further raise the IQ of our “smart” warehouses and DCs. Inbound Logistics sums it up this way: “Accessing the right information to make smart decisions in the warehouse is one main reason why the demand for big data has grown so much — and so rapidly — in the distribution sector.”

Do you think distribution center and warehouse managers do enough to leverage big data?

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