What’s behind Cainiao’s Automated UCS for Warehousing and Distribution?

Facing explosive cost growth due to a thinning labor force, many logistics companies begin to utilize new technologies to offset this issue.

Cainiao, Alibaba’s logistics partner, was founded with the aim of building the most efficient logistics networks not only in China, but across the world. However, instead of using a Warehouse Control System (WCS), as is common among most logistics companies, Cainiao opted to use a Unified Control System (UCS), to provide real-time access to buyers and sellers and helping to successfully deliver more than 57 million deliveries a day. During the 2017 Double 11 shopping festival, Cainiao delivered 812 million parcels, and is expected to cross the one billion mark for the 2018 Double 11 sales event this coming November.

What is UCS?

As a unified production line control system, UCS is the medium between business systems and automated production lines, and helps manage Cainiao’s Intelligent Warehouse system, organize production lines, and pull data from the production lines.

UCS versus WCS

A UCS, on the other hand, controls all automated equipment production lines. In this way, a UCS is a unified version of WCS — not designed for a specific production line, but to control all downstream automated equipment and provide a set of unified APIs to upstream businesses. These upstream businesses then assign tasks to the automated production lines, again using the UCS. This enables them to shift focus from specific lines and switch-in to fully-automated processes.

Standard UCS tasks

1. Integrated switch-in of various automated production lines such as goods-to-human AGV, sorters, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), and robotic arms.

2. Shielding various downstream production lines and unifying interfaces for the benefit of upstream businesses. Siasun, KSEC, Zhongding, Daifuku are prominent examples of AS/RS solution providers. Sorter brands include Dematic, Vanderlande, Damon, Swisslog, and Li Sheng, all of whom use different communication protocols unnecessary for upstream businesses to learn.

3. Quick replication of automated production lines; for example, by using a standardized switch-in system to conduct switch-ins for multiple warehouses.

4. Ensuring highly available channels for quickly sending route control commands to guarantee orderly production, even in weak network conditions.

5. Scheduling and coordinating hardware equipment for complicated production lines; for example, delivering a pallet into/out of an AS/RS through the coordination of conveyor lines, stackers, and RGVs.

6. Realizing quick, orderly, and safe production regardless of volume size.

7. Properly monitoring automated business processes, quickly identifying and locating problems, and providing stable support for safe production.

UCS architecture

· Task & Data Center (TDC)

· Central Control System (CCS)

Standard events control alerts going to the CCS, with each event triggering certain behaviors. For example, the Cainiao CCS deems AS/RS pallet code scanning an attempt to execute a warehousing logic.

The CCS uses the automation scheduling module to schedule automated tasks and coordinate the working sequence of different equipment. For example, when a pallet of products is put on the shelf in an AS/RS, it first enters through the shelf inlet and is then shifted to the stacker dock by the conveyor line, where products are carried away by stackers that execute the delivery command to complete the entire process. This is a typical scheduling process, involving questions like when to notify the conveyor line to move, when to instruct the stackers to carry away products, and when to instruct the stackers to deliver products. Such a close-knit process requires a scheduling system to decide when each step is completed.

The CCS can be likened to a command center that controls and distributes the ISA for all production lines. The UCS’s standard control command tells the CCS which event from the LCS triggers what ISA interaction. This aids the CCS in sending the correct ISA down to the LCS of a specific production line. Using expansion points of production lines helps expand processing logic according to their standard events, thus enabling particular production lines to use expansive business logic.

Equipment status functions can record real-time status data during production, which can be used for scheduling business algorithms. Production data notices inform upstream business systems of events occurring during warehouse production processes.

· Local Control System (LCS)

· UCS console

What next?

(Original article by Wen Song温松)

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