When we talk about innovation in the fashion industry, we usually think of new fabrics, production methods or designs. But innovation is certainly also of the utmost importance in the supply chain, especially when it comes to improving business processes. There are currently a multitude of interesting developments in the pipeline; from robots that can help optimize the return flow, to drones that produce an inventory of warehouse stocks. FashionUnited spoke to Kevin Paindeville, Innovation Manager at Bleckmann about the different ways to achieve supply chain improvements and when innovations are and are not appropriate.
Knowledge is power
As a logistics service provider for various (fashion) companies, Bleckmann is constantly on the lookout for innovative, high-quality solutions. Not only to be more efficient, but also to be able to offer customers increased quality, explains Paindeville. “Data is absolutely crucial so that we can determine where, when and how we innovate – after all, we can’t do it all at the same time. This is why we launched a project a few years ago in which we accumulate data from various internal applications, such as our warehouse management system (WMS) and our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, in a huge database. of data. We then use end-to-end reporting to get an overview of all our processes: where are we doing well and where could improvements be made? In what areas could we increase our efficiency and be even more effective? While staying focused on the interests of our clients.
Robots in the warehouse
For example, a study on the possible use of robots in the warehouse. This research showed that between sixty and seventy percent of the work done in the warehouse involves walking between the racks, Paindeville said. “It’s not only tiring, but also quite monotonous. We introduced a Hikrobot robot with Superdry. This moves around the shelving and is able to lift and move mobile shelving. A scan will tell the robot exactly whether to place or pick up a product. All returned items can easily be stored at the locations indicated and are then quickly available for resale. This automation has increased the efficiency of Superdry’s returns processing by 400%. Superdry and Bleckmann now plan to expand the use of robotic systems, following the success of last year’s pilot.
Make inventories with drones
Bleckmann will launch another three-month pilot project in August with a different type of robot: a drone to carry out inventories of goods in the reserve area of the warehouse. Normally someone would need to manually scan all barcodes at the location and on the boxes for this purpose. It’s incredibly time consuming. “We want to know how much technology can help us in this process. We are going to do this with a drone which is linked to a robot on the ground with a big battery. This battery will ensure that the drone stays in the air and can continuously scan for up to five hours at a time. This smart drone has a warehouse map, which means it doesn’t need to be controlled. It can therefore operate at different times when the warehouse is not active and stock levels remain constant. This makes this technology very promising because you could produce a correct comparison every night and therefore; quickly anticipate stock deviations and act.
Make the difference
The practical examples above show that robots can be of great added value for process optimization. However, this does not change the fact that Bleckmann will always carefully analyze and decide whether the technology is useful or not for its customers, and whether it is worth the investment costs. “The approach must be very pragmatic. We will always prepare a careful business case beforehand, in which we compare different scenarios. The questions that will always be asked are: will the investment bring sufficient qualitative and quantitative benefits, is it worth a price point of view and is it good for people? We then carry out a test concept in collaboration with the customer, in order to test the innovation on a small scale. The ultimate goal is not to replace humans with robots as much as possible, but rather to support them. This means that they won’t need to do as much repetitive work and can focus on tasks where they can really make a difference.
Out of the box
Innovation is a constant element in everything Bleckmann does, the team also thinks outside the box. This became evident recently, when on-site training for a UK customer was not possible due to the limitations of Covid. The Microsoft HoloLens offered a solution. “These are smart glasses that use mixed reality: they place a virtual layer on reality,” explains Paindeville enthusiastically. “This technology allowed us to continue to remotely monitor a specific process with this particular client – and we were able to offer coaching and assistance as needed. We now also use HoloLens to offer new potential customers, who are not able to visit us physically, an overview of our business. We are also currently investigating whether we can use HoloLens in businesses in other ways, for example to train warehouse workers who do not yet know the location more quickly.
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