The Know-It-All

Feature Article | March 10, 2009 by Uta Spinger, SAP

Teamwork: MICA ensures that the right wire is placed in the right container. (Photo: SAP)

Future Factory
MICA is part of SAP Research’s manufacturing focal area. The Future Factory Initiative is a joint effort between SAP Research and industrial and academic partner organizations to foster research and development for the manufacturing industry. The Future Factory Lab in Dresden, Germany, works on new technologies. It also exhibits distributed manufacturing scenarios together with partners of the SmartFactory Initiative and of the model factory of the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering.

We’ve all come across them: those new employees who think they know best and love to interfere, right from day one at the company. ART warehouse specialist Robert Kremer is going to have to get used to a colleague like that. If he accidentally puts a wrong wire into the container during the picking process, his new colleague will complain immediately (“Remove the incorrect article” ) before briskly instructing him to “Put article 1 in carton 3” – as if the experienced employee would not have noticed it himself.

But Kremer should not allow the newcomer to upset him, because MICA, as he is known, only does what he has been told by his parents at SAP Research and the Fraunhofer Institute. The result of the research program Multimodal Interaction in Context-Adaptive Systems, MICA is actually a cart equipped with a tablet PC and positioning functions that use radio frequency identification (RFID).

The ideal employee

MICA’s first taste of real-life work took him to ART in Hockenheim, Germany. Division manager Jürgen Wollbrecht had discovered MICA at CeBIT2007 and was immediately impressed by his special talent: MICA does not make mistakes.

And that is just the kind of employee Wollbrecht wanted to have for his warehouse, where workers pick wiring systems for neighboring printing press giant Heidelberg (Heidelberger Druckmaschinen). Quality and reliability have always had highest priority at ART. Its major customers in the mechanical and plant engineering industry, including Bosch, Index, Bombardier, and Heidelberg, appreciate and rely on this.

Spurring on best performance

Inventory of the ART Group, (Photo: SAP)


Heidelberg sets the bar particularly high, encouraging suppliers to deliver excellent performance. “We’ve been working closely with Heidelberg for more than 50 years and earn about half our revenues from the company. So they were a logical choice as development partner for our logistics system,” says Wollbrecht.

Two years ago, Wollbrecht continues, ART opted for integrated software from SAP because it “enables a workflow approach,” making business processes quicker and simpler. Moreover, he says that data quality has improved and lead times have shortened, resulting in savings. “However, you can only gain a competitive edge if you react flexibly to customers’ needs,” he emphasizes. Revenue can increase by up to 50% after trade fairs, and ART has to be prepared for such peaks because reliable deliveries are essential.

To stand out from its competitors, ART has to offer perfect logistics. Mechanical engineering companies such as Heidelberg rely on their suppliers. If a wire is missing, for example, the mechanic cannot fit the cover on the printing machine, bringing assembly to a halt.

At ART, too, disruptions in supply create problems; work has to stop because components are supplied in the sequence necessary to assemble a product. “Disruptions cause additional setup and logistics costs, as well as more work for mechanics,” explains Wollbrecht. “That’s why we need the increased security that MICA provides.” This reduces the number of checks – for example, ensuring the right wire ends up in the right container – and helps minimize stock levels. In the medium term, the company hopes the electronic warehouse assistant will eliminate complaints about incorrect or defective deliveries.

Goods and system in dialog

MICA takes orders from the SAP warehousing software in real time and assigns them to employees. Using RFID and acoustic and optical sensors, the device collects data from both its surroundings and the movements of its human colleagues. RFID has an advantage over bar codes because data is transferred without physical contact. Tags attached to the articles enable direct communication with MICA, which itself is connected to the enterprise resource planning system.

The antenna on the cart registers which wiring set Kremer has taken off the rack: “Stop. Take the wire from basket 4 and put it in container 2,” MICA instructs through the driver’s earphones. Transponders on the floor show them both where to go next. If it gets too noisy in the warehouse, the device switches to displaying its messages on a
screen.

Inexperienced temporary workers hired during peak periods especially benefit from this assistance. “MICA corrects mistakes that our staff make due to poor lighting or because they lack the right skills,” says Wollbrecht. This enables ART to work better and faster. “MICA lets me relax because I know that the delivery is right.”

MICA has the answer

MICA is still an only child, a prototype, as researchers say. But his parents hope he will soon have siblings to help even large companies with their picking processes; the system is equipped to deal with up to 10,000 pick orders per day.

Manfred Pauli of SAP Research can envision mail-order companies such as Amazon and Otto using the cart and its RFID technology. “One of MICA’s plus points is that staff don’t need to know their way around the warehouse. So articles can be stored wherever there’s room, saving space and time.”

MICA frees up experienced warehouse specialists like Kremer to perform tasks that require more expertise. After all, even the most perfect machine cannot take the place of people.

ART Group
For more than 50 years, the ART Group has been supplying the mechanical and plant engineering industry with electromechanical components and systems. Its products range from housing and control technology to wiring systems. Headquartered in Hockenheim, Germany, ART employs 800 people in six plants, three of which are in Germany and the rest in Poland and Romania.

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