Process engineering points to the future

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Life-cycle services
The scale and complexity of the automated solutions being integrated into material handling operations continue to rise. For many companies, this technology is a considerable financial and operational investment. Therefore, it needs to deliver sustainable results.
Process engineers aim to continuously optimise system performance and operational processes. For this, we gather and analyse system data. One of the latest data science methodologies we use is ‘process mining’. This is a process management technique that analyses business processes based on event logs. 
 
During process mining, special algorithms are applied to event data recorded by any information system in order to identify trends and patterns. The concept originates from corporate business practices. But why has it become such a hot topic for the logistics sector and what could it hold for our customers?
 
Operational readiness 
 
In some cases, incorporating new technology and assimilating it with existing work streams is not always a smooth process. Often, our customers are going from manual processes to automated ones and are not always operationally ready to make that step. 
 
With process mining, we have the potential to help customers make this change. Using data in a smart way could play a pivotal role in achieving operational readiness by unlocking sustainable solutions. This was certainly the case for one of our customers – ALSO Finland.
 
Sustaining demand
 
Based in Finland, ALSO supplies IT products and services. In 2016, it invested in a new warehouse, which was furnished with the ADAPTO system. It was one of the first ADAPTO solutions to go live for Vanderlande and consisted of 15 shuttles and three lifts.
After a time, it became apparent to ALSO Finland that it needed the system to deliver more capacity and better performance in order to sustain the demands of its customers. ALSO Finland approached us for a solution that would allow it to increase ADAPTO’s throughput and the overall picking capacity.
 
Defining the project
 
Following our standard DMAIC approach – define, measure, analyse, improve and control – we met with ALSO Finland to identify its desired outcomes. We then moved on to measure and analyse the system’s performance. 
 
With state-of-the-art technology already integrated within the ADAPTO system, we were able to gather precise ‘real-time’ data delivered from actual cartons as they travelled through the system. This generated an accurate account of how the system was performing and the manner in which operators were interacting with it.
 
By deploying a step-by-step approach, we were able to meticulously analyse and measure the collated data. The information highlighted where the main inefficiencies and bottlenecks were within the workflow. From this, we were able to determine the key areas for improvement.
 
Notable results
 
We identified a number of ‘quick wins’, including minor adjustments to the system’s thresholds, as well as modifications to the actions taken by operators. By implementing the alterations based on our findings, we were able to quickly realise a 20% increase in picking capacity. The capital outlay required was also minimal. 
 
With this approach, we almost always find opportunities for optimisation, which are achievable without having to invest in large-scale system transformations.
 
Continuous optimisation
 
The science behind process mining is really convincing. Our software and data analytics allowed us to visualise a real-time model of how ALSO Finland’s system was performing. This meant it could see first-hand what was going on and how inefficiencies could be remedied. 
 
When data is put to good use, process mining can facilitate the continuous optimisation of a customer’s business based on real-time information reporting and analysis. For Vanderlande, it represents a significant step forward in designing, delivering, operating and optimising smart material handling solutions and processes that deliver value to our customers in an intelligent way.
 
Leading the way
 
Understanding the future significance of developing this business area, we are currently working with the Eindhoven University of Technology and the founding father of process mining, Professor Wil van der Aalst. Through this, we can confidently say that we are ahead of our competitors in the development of process mining for the logistics industry.
 
With process mining currently a much less advanced science in our sector, Vanderlande is cooperating with PhD students, among others, to realise the concept further. The students will work with dr. Dirk Fahland from the university and Professor Wil van der Aalst to create process models that are specifically applicable to the world of logistics.
 
Software solutions
 
To be able to test the future potential of process mining, we have been utilising software developed by the Eindhoven University of Technology. As with any ‘off-the-shelf’ product, this is not currently 100% fit for purpose. That is why we are developing our own software that is specific to our industry.
 
Central to the success of expertly deliverin process mining solutions to our customers will be the software. Therefore, it is fundamental that it reflects our customers’ needs, and works in synergy with our products and services.
 
Future potential
 
In achieving this, we also open up the potential for this software and approach to be applied to any Vanderlande system, across all market sectors. For airports, it would look at the flow of bags, and for parcel, the flow of packages. The only aspect that is different is the identity of the items travelling through the system, but essentially it could be used anywhere.
 
Our project with ALSO Finland highlights exactly why process mining could lead the way to smarter, cost-effective results. As such, it seems there has never been a better time to put process mining at the forefront of Vanderlande’s service solutions.
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About the author

Erik Blokhuis
Senior Process Engineer