The LiDAR market is projected to grow to $551.26 million by 2018, with heavy penetration in industrial and commercial sectors. This is broad-based expansion for a technology that began in the early 1960s, when its use was strictly limited to government and military applications.

Today, LiDAR can automate the measurement of wind and atmospheric turbulence to help with weather and air traffic control—and in manufacturing, warehouses and distribution centers, it can also contribute to a key initiative that most have on their plates: sustainability. LiDAR can monitor substances released in transmissions as well as wind power generation that contributes to business green initiatives.

LiDAR collects data in three ways: through fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters; through stationary sensors that collect terrestrial-based LiDAR data; and through mobile LiDAR, where data is collected from a moving truck, train, or other vehicle. Manufacturing and distribution make use of all three methods, but there is particularly heavy focus on terrestrial and mobile LiDAR in facility planning, operational automation and supply chain and logistics monitoring.

Rethinking warehousing and distribution

In the mid-2000s economic recession, there was widespread pushback on expenses in manufacturing, distribution and warehousing. Out of this came consolidations of warehouses and distribution centers into fewer but larger facilities. Since that time, etailers like Amazon have revolutionized the customer order fulfillment process, and competing retailers and manufacturers now feel pressure to speed time to market and fulfillment of customer demand. While focus continues on operating with slim inventories to keep carrying charges down, there is also movement toward creating more (and smaller) distribution centers near areas of customer concentration to expedite order fulfillment. In facility and site evaluation, LiDAR can play a leading role with advanced site pictorial data capture and modeling that compares the features of different building sites and locations. LiDAR-based data capture and simulation reduces field work and improves time to decision.

Automating warehouse operations

As workers in warehouses and distribution centers age and young people entering the workforce look for employment in other industries, it gets harder to walk those concrete floors and stay on your feet all day. The challenge of aging warehouse and distribution center workforces in the U.S. and other countries is being addressed with driverless vehicles that unload and stack inventory, and pick items off warehouse shelves for customer order fulfillment. In Russia, these automated vehicles interact with central servers that house warehouse management systems—and the vehicles coordinate and execute warehouse tasks. The vehicles use video cameras and LIDAR to assist them in sensing the objects around them (for collision avoidance), and they can dynamically respond to the environment around them.

Logistics sensors and tracking

LiDAR-enabled sensors are used on transport vehicles that sense distances for backing up without collision in industrial logistics—but they will also be increasingly deployed throughout companies’ supply chains and logistics providers’ transportation infrastructures.  Sensors will be used to detect when events go wrong (such as the breakage of a container seal that causes the temperature controls for a perishable food item to fail), or when cargo is not where it should be (LIDAR-enabled mapping technology will be able to track and trace vehicles in motion so shippers know exactly where they are). In these scenarios, LiDAR teams with other Internet of Things (IoT) sensing devices to deliver end to end visibility of both the goods supply chain and the logistics traffic paths to shippers and their carriers.

Where do we go from here?

Tomorrow’s LiDAR and remote sensing technologies will integrate numerous sensors within a single data collection and analytics platform so data can be more effectively managed and acted upon. These integrated data platforms will enable users to simultaneously collect spatial, optical and spectral information. In industry, supply chain planning and even rechanneling of goods flows will become more automated. On the floors of factories, warehouses and distribution centers, we can expect to see further automation of operations so “best routes” and workflows for inventory stocking and order picking can be followed. Most importantly, new sensor-based technologies that include LiDAR will assist manufacturers and retailers in getting goods to market faster, which today’s global economy demands.