Blickfeld LiDAR sensors monitor the volume of bulk material piles with great efficiency

Up to now, bulk material inventories have often been measured inaccurately or even estimated. This leads to inefficiencies in the supply chain - although LiDAR technology can very easily remedy this situation. Sachtleben Technology relies on Blickfeld LiDAR sensors to precisely monitor bulk material piles in warehouses and to calculate inventories on the basis of this data.
Blickfeld LiDAR sensors monitor the volume of bulk material piles with great efficiency

When it comes to volume measurement, many people initially recall their high school mathematics lessons. They see cuboids or cubes in front of them, maybe even cylinders. While the volume of these objects can also be easily determined with the aid of LiDAR sensors – for example, of boxes in warehouses – Sachtleben Technology uses LiDAR to measure another type of object – piles of bulk material. A wide range of materials are stored in this form, such as gravel, minerals, or animal feeds. With the help of sensors, the inventory is measured so that – depending on requirements – an overview of the actual quantity of product present can be obtained daily or even in real-time.

This is not a given as inventory is often recorded inaccurately or with expensive measuring technologies. The time-consuming evaluations of these measurements reduce the accuracy and dependability of the inventory recorded in the books. As a result, companies often do not know how much material they actually have in storage.

Inaccurate scales and volume estimates lead to efficiency losses

“This is a problem that many companies dealing with bulk materials have,” says Quirin Kraus, managing director of Sachtleben Technology. And it’s not a small problem; purchasing, sales, and even production, all depend on inventory. Buyers have to order new material for production in good time to avoid creating bottlenecks here. In short, accurate inventory determination can significantly increase productivity and efficiency in companies’ supply chain management. In addition, the supply chain is long, several intermediate storage operations are carried out before reaching the end customer. Here, an accurate inventory overview can lead to up to 25 percent efficiency gains, depending on the case.

Until now, many companies have used different types of product inventory recording techniques, such as truck scales or wheel loaders with integrated scales in the bucket. In some cases, shovels are counted when the material is moved from A to B, the pile size is estimated, or stock levels are inferred from the quantity of the end product. The problem with these types of recording is the accumulated inaccuracy. Over a longer period of time, significant measurement errors creep in in over time and then continue to perpetuate.

“Like in the game “telephone”, the error is carried on and on until, in the end, the number in the books is significantly different from the actual stock,” Kraus elaborates. “Often, the inventory is also just estimated. With a little experience, you know what pile size corresponds to how many tons of material.” Of course, this practice is not very precise.

Volume Measurement has often been inaccurate
Legacy measurement methods for bulk material piles are often inaccurate

Volume Monitoring using LiDAR for precise inventory detection

“I have been working with laser scanning technologies for many years,” Kraus adds. “I have many customers in the field of raw material extraction. There, I already use 3D laser scanners, for example, for slope monitoring or ablation estimation.” Therefore, Kraus was also aware of the suitability of 3D laser scanners for volume measurement of bulk materials, thanks to their high resolution.

Other technologies, such as radar or photometry, present certain hurdles. For instance, radar data are can also be used for volume determination, but the sensors are considerably more expensive, and data evaluation is more complex. Photometry does not provide the necessary data precision to reliably determine the volume and is highly dependent on lighting conditions.

Other laser scanners, such as the ones Quirin Kraus was already using, have the disadvantage that although boasting a long range, their dependence on a tripod stand means that need to be set up multiple times at various points to capture the entire inventory, being leveled after each set-up. These measurements cannot be automated and therefore incur high manual labor costs and hours. “So it was clear to us that we needed laser-based 3D sensors for our indoor use case that would capture the entire inventory in a continuous stream of data and with a wide field of view. We just hadn’t found the right product yet.”

This is where the Blickfeld LiDAR sensors came into play. “With the Blickfeld Cube 1, we found a small, lightweight, rugged, and cost-effective LiDAR that exactly met our requirements.” In large warehouses, many square meters must be covered to capture the entire inventory. If many sensors are needed, devices with a five-figure price tag are hardly an option.

Reliable coverage of the entire warehouse

“To build our stockpile monitoring system, we first looked at coverage of the Blickfeld sensors to figure out how many sensors we needed for specific warehouse sizes,” Kraus describes. Thanks to the large field-of-view, only a small number of LiDAR sensors are needed to cover a large area. For example, fourteen sensors for a warehouse size of 2500 square meters. The sensors are attached to adapter plates with network and power connections on the warehouse ceiling. Since it is often quite dusty in warehouses, Kraus had initially planned to install a separate sensor cleaning system. “So far, however, this has not been necessary. We get very reliable data despite a layer of dust on the sensor,” reports Kraus with satisfaction.

Volume measurement using LiDAR delivers exact data on the inventory
The Blickfeld Cube 1 LiDAR sensors are mounted on the ceiling and record the inventory in real-time.

The 3D data generated by the LiDAR sensors provide information on the height, width, and depth of the bulk piles with great precision and accuracy. Based on this data, the Owl-Eye system – a web-based software solution developed by Sachtleben Technology – can accurately calculate the stock in bulk. The software includes the density of the surveyed product in the calculation, thus providing up-to-the-minute information on product inventory based on the LiDAR live stream.

A particular advantage is also the uncomplicated registration of the various point clouds. Each sensor outputs the acquired data in a so-called point cloud, in which each point contains x, y, and z coordinate information. The fusion, or registration, of point clouds from multiple sensors, allows the entire inventory to be captured at once. “Previously, the individual scans of the different set-up points had to be merged manually. Now, the Cubes are impressively simple and straightforward to install,” says Kraus.

Point cloud of bulk material piles to calculate the volume
Point cloud of the bulk material piles, based on which volume and mass are calculated.

Numerous possible industrial applications

In addition to the installation of LiDAR sensors for inventory measurement in warehouses, Quirin Kraus sees other industries that could benefit from the application. “In port facilities or gravel plants, there is a need for volume measurement using LiDAR,” he states. “Or, for example, in the chemical industry for raw material processing – basically, in all areas that store bulk materials in piles.” In addition, a mobile version of the application could also be interesting for construction sites, for example, to measure excavated material. “We are convinced that this system can add value to the industry,” Kraus concludes. 

Blickfeld LiDAR sensors monitor the volume of bulk material piles with great efficiency

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