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Optical inspection systems for logistics

Established in 1993 and based in Isernhagen, near Hannover (Germany), bci GmbH specialises in industrial identification technology and image processing. 

As a manufacturer-independent system integrator, bci doesn’t just provide consulting services, it also develops and designs customer solutions and puts them into practice. This involves finding the ideal combination of components, hardware and software, connecting them together to create a new system solution and then integrating the solution into the customer’s workflows. Whether in the logistics, (car) production, electronics or medical sectors, customers tend to contact bci early on. “That’s when we start designing an optical inspection system, normally consisting of a camera, lighting, software, PC and assembly frame,” explains Managing Director Peter Schiermann. While optical inspection systems are usually used for quality control purposes in areas like production, when it comes to logistics, things are a little different. In this case, the systems need to identify and document goods or pallets, for instance. To meet these requirements, bci has developed the STA.X counting station and SMART.DOCK scanning gate inspection systems as solutions for optically checking and counting crates and identifying pallets. When it comes to the frame constructions, the company uses aluminium profiles from the MB Building Kit System, as it has done for almost three decades.

Automatically counting and classifying collapsible crates with an optical inspection system

Collapsible crates are a great example for explaining how the technology developed by bci actually helps companies. Supermarkets in Germany use these crates extensively to display fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables. Once the crates have been emptied, the supermarket will collect them together on pallets or trolleys and send them to a central warehouse, from where they are then returned to the crate manufacturer’s distribution centre. Once cleaned, the crates are then fed back into the cycle. Each time the crates are collected together or handed over, they need to be counted. Given the sheer mass of collapsible crates involved, getting truck drivers or logistics staff to count them manually would take a huge amount of time and the chances of mistakes being made would be very high. This is precisely where the STA.X counting station from bci comes in. This optical identification system classifies the collapsible crates by type and counts them. “Our solution is a way of documenting incoming or outgoing stock electronically – and it works at any stage in the supply chain where the crates are being transported on pallets or trolleys,” explains Schiermann.

We have been using aluminium profiles from item for ever. The modular design of the building kit system is a huge advantage, as is the wide range of accessories.

All users need to do is push the relevant transport unit with the collapsed crates side-on into the gap between the two panels of the optical inspection system. Pallet stacks up to 2.4 metres tall can be scanned on both sides, even when carrying mixed loads. Besides making sure the crates are the right way round, the only other thing users need to do is remove any elements such as straps, films and labels. Once the system has counted the crates, the result is displayed on the integrated touchpad, which serves as a control unit. As the area around the transport unit – and therefore people – can be blocked out of the image capture, the system is fully compliant with the requirements of the European General Data Protection Regulation. When it came to selecting the material for the framework that supports the panels, the team at bci didn’t have to think twice: “We have been using aluminium profiles from item for ever. The modular design of the building kit system is a huge advantage, as is the wide range of accessories,” says Schiermann. On top of that, the two companies are also located close together, with only 400 metres separating bci from the premises of the item branch in Isernhagen. As part of this close collaboration, bci staff can even use the item premises to build their prototypes.

The STA.X counting station identifies the collapsible crates on both sides and then counts and classifies them by type.

SMART.DOCK: The logistics scanning gate that registers packed pallets while in motion

One of the key requirements for goods issue departments in the distribution centres of the logistics sector is to make sure goods are loaded onto the right truck. Once packed on pallets, the goods are picked up by forklift trucks and taken to the loading zone where they are gathered together ready to be loaded onto the relevant truck. Each pallet has a specific code. “There are two crucial tasks – documenting that the pallet is leaving the warehouse and checking that the pallet number is right for the order currently being loaded,” Schiermann points out. However, there are countless loading zones, all right next to each other, which makes for a certain susceptibility to errors. Scanning the barcodes on these pallets by hand takes a long time and mistakes can result in contractual penalties. The SMART.DOCK scanning gate from bci offers a solution for this challenging issue. The optical inspection system is located at the goods issue point and is fitted with one or more scanners on one or both sides. The contactless scanning gate automatically registers barcodes – while the pallets are moving. As a result, staff don’t need to get off their forklift, or even stop. The wide field of view and long-range reading of the KEYENCE SR-5000 logistics scanners used in the solution ensure that the reading process is always accurate, even at varying distances and speeds.

There are no limits to our customers’ requirements. The MB Building Kit System helps us enormously with that.

Thanks to a traffic light system on the optical inspection system, logistics staff can see straight away whether the pallets have been allocated to the right truck. Ultimately, SMART.DOCK doesn’t just help lower costs by eliminating the need for manual scanning – it also minimises the risk of contractual penalties by ensuring there are no loading errors. item profile technology has proven very useful in this application, too. “As always, item has been great, and that includes further on down the line. The flexibility of the components, the expertise of the staff, the close proximity – all these things make our collaboration a real pleasure,” says Schiermann. Although the STA.X counting station and SMART.DOCK scanning gate are standard solutions that have evolved from specialist solutions, every customer has slightly different requirements, as Schiermann explains: “Although the system stays the same in essence, there’s always a need for adjustments and modifications. Fundamentally, there are no limits to our customers’ requirements. The MB Building Kit System naturally helps us enormously with that.”

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