How technology is transforming warehouses

It’s not always clear if technology is transforming warehouses, or if demand is forcing new technological developments to emerge. What we know is that technology, specifically automation, is becoming increasingly necessary to warehousing and logistics for three reasons:

  1. warehousing operations need better inventory accuracy
  2. technology can help resolve issues with personnel gaps and peaks and troughs in demand
  3. customers demand quicker, and cheaper, delivery.

In more detail:

1 – Not knowing your stock, sending out the wrong stock, or having supply chain failures so that you lack the right stock at the right time, is always expensive. A recent survey suggests that each return costs a warehousing operation around 66% of the original unit price. Reducing that level of loss has to be a good idea

2 – Labour costs, from recruitment, to training, to retention, are a major component of any warehouse space. Having to use agency personnel is both expensive and potentially risky, as there’s a greater risk of mistakes as well as the certainty of slower operations.

3 –  22% of shoppers abandon their online carts because shipping is too slow. How do they know? Because when they get to the shipping options, what’s on offer isn’t going to meet their needs. This is where technology around logistics can improve warehousing performance and create a better impression for customers.

Transformation through Warehouse Management Systemstechnology in warehousing

Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) are ways of consolidating essential warehouse data into one accessible system. Until recently areas of the supply chain tended to have their own administrative structures which provided  reporting, statistics and planning, but because they weren’t integrated, these sources of information didn’t feed into a warehouse-wide structure that delivered warehouse wide benefits such as:

  • Increased visibility across the supply chain
  • Better demand forecasting
  • Streamlined warehouse operations
  • Improved inventory accuracy
  • Better warehouse safety
  • Improved customer service
  • Clearer supply chain relationships and communications.

The entire sector, from groundbreaking logistics start-ups through to established retail giants, is seeking more agile and more responsive WMS, to try and stay on top of the ever increasing demand for more speed, more accuracy and more transparency in warehouse operations. The transformative nature of WMS is not purely internal, improving your own activities, but external, improving supply chain activity and/or changing who you work with in your supply chain. WMS can replace manual inventory track, improving accuracy and simultaneously transmit inventory data to suppliers so there is no delay in updating orders.


Data driven transformation

Warehouse data is the spinal column of warehousing – it provides all the function around which the warehouse operates. Beyond the entry point of capturing data, warehouse transformation focuses on information sharing and transmission, incorporating data sharing between warehouse operatives, between devices, and between points on a supply chain, so that operational decisions can be made swiftly and with confidence.

While the transformation may be incremental – shaving seconds from warehouse operations, ordering stock a day earlier than usual, it can rapidly grow into an asset, inventory and logistics framework that can support a more responsive warehouse with smoother workflows and more resilient personnel.


Transforming workflows

Once data is digitised, new tools can become available to manage workflow better. These workflow transformers include Automated Picking Tools, Automated Guided Vehicles and Autonomous Mobile Robots. Inevitably human error has an impact on workflows – in fact it’s the number one cause of errors in fulfilment –  no matter how good a human workforce, that doesn’t change. Beyond data digitisation there is the Internet of Things – a concept that can be implemented to manage all the operations of a warehouse, such as sensors that monitor and control temperature and humidity in the warehouse space, synchronising inventory controls with security to reduce spoilage and pilferage and bringing together data with workforce planning to ensure smooth operation through peaks and troughs, calling on automation to benefit the customer.


Automated Picking Tools – the first stage towards warehouse picking perfection

Automated picking tends to be an evolution rather than a transformation. Many warehouses begin with RFID (radio frequency identification) which can improve productivity and accuracy. From there, further systems such as voice automated picking and pick-to-light can speed up workflows even further and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) reduce personnel levels while further increasing efficiency in both order fulfilment and demand prediction.


Autonomous Mobile Robots – transforming how people work

A truly transformative stage of warehouse development is the introduction of AMRs (Autonomous Mobile Robots) because they integrate perfectly with human workforce operations to ensure distribution operations remain smooth and swift, even in peaks of demand. In addition, AMRs can be relied on to do the work that is both physically and mentally exhausting, meaning that people, supervising robots, can achieve much more than people can alone. A full 50% of warehouse personnel hours is spent walking – both AMRs and AGVs (see below) can help reduce the wasted time warehouse personnel put into traversing the workplace so that they can use their time more effectively, in other activities that require human input, such as returns, personalised wrapping, kitting etc. It’s important to be clear that robotics are not a complete human replacement – a better model is to see AMRs as doing mundane work so that people are freed to solve problems, identify potential opportunities and put personalised touches to processes.


Automated Guided Vehicles – an evolution on warehouse transportation

Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) allow warehouses to massively optimise their storage and retrieval processes, included pallet storage. AGVs can be forklifts, pallet carts etc. and because they run along digital pathways, they can be installed without having to redesign your warehouse layout. Common AGVS include automatic guided carts travelling along magnetic tape or using sensor based navigation systems. Guided cars can transport the smallest components up to fully loaded pallets and can be used in sorting, storage and cross-docking.


Future transformative technology for warehouses

Both AI and Machine Learning are in their infancy, but both offer great capacity in predictive outcomes, allowing warehouses to streamline their supply chains and manage workflows getter.

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