Legacy tech and new systems – how warehouses can get the best of both worlds

Keeping a warehouse running smoothly involves a number of balancing acts – one of them is adopting and integrating new technologies alongside existing systems.


What is a legacy warehouse system?


Broadly speaking, ‘legacy’ refers to any outdated computer system (software or hardware) that’s still being used. Legacy systems aren’t necessarily obsolete – many continue to work and continue to be essential to the function of the warehouse.


The elements that make a system ‘legacy’ are:


  • No longer being updated or supported by their creators
  • Can no longer be purchases or rely on obsolete technology to continue to operate
  • Can only be maintained by a professional with training in that software/hardware which means that the warehouse may become tied into a single organisation or individual for support
  • Maintenance is more expensive than replacing
  • At high risk due to poor security and no ability to update.


The major challenges facing warehousing todaywarehousing technology


Any warehouse manager, in virtually every part of the world, is facing very similar challenges, specifically:


  1. Locating the right staff in struggling economies where labour is limited and people are still responding to changes in working patterns following the pandemic
  2. Identifying and adopting appropriate technology to support warehouse operations
  3. Solving supply chain issues in a rapidly changing environment.


Each of these issue brings its own technology challenges.


Staffing, especially for warehouses moving into new areas of automation, can be less of a problem than for warehouses that are still operating entirely via personnel – however, it can be highly disruptive to current employees to introduce new technology and can slow warehouse operations down until new staff are up to speed. This can be an ongoing problem as new team members need to be trained on technology – creating slowdowns and logjams. As a result, warehouse managers are often resistant to introducing new technology.


Finding the right technology is often a complex process. It might seem straightforward to say that the newest technology is the best. However, technology has to be a good fit for both the warehouse space and the products it handles. A warehouse space dealing with standard FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) might benefit from technology such as RFID SKU coding, pallet storage managed by automated vehicles and even fully automated pick and pack. On the other hand, a warehousing scenario that contains one off items such as artworks, vintage pieces and customised purchases might have a much lower automation/technology level because the intrinsic knowledge that warehouse personnel bring to their activities might outweigh the advantages of some technologies.


Supply chain issue have had a substantial impact on warehouse activities since 2020. During and post pandemic, coping with Brexit outcomes and impacted by the cost-of-living crisis, warehouse activity has been under constant challenge for several years. Obviously technology can help make a warehouse space more efficient, but it’s also true that new technologies are highly disruptive and can have knock on effects not only in the warehouse itself but also through the supply chain to partners and suppliers. This means that warehouses have been impacted by a technology refresh being undertaken at other points in the supply chain, because logistics, planning and event packing systems can be substantially altered by tech upgrades at other points in the supply chain.


How to blend legacy and new technology in warehousing


The first priority is, of course, planning. This has two major areas of focus – timing and budgets. A rollout plan needs to allow enough time for ‘retrofitting’ which may mean stripping legacy tech back to factory settings to allow it to align with new technology or may mean creating a technology hub where testing of the relationship between old and new tech can be done without negatively impacting warehouse operations. In short – allow enough time to thoroughly test interactions between the two systems and enough money to give staff training and support to feel confident about the new technology.


Integrate early adopters – early adopters are warehouse operatives who have been trained in the new technology. They aren’t just champions of the system, although this is how managers often tend to see them, they are actually beta testers – people who have tested the process and can provide feedback on it. On that basis they should be listened to and given the opportunity to influence how the technology is integrated, evaluated and rolled out throughout the warehouse operation.


A case study in legacy tech and new systems


The forklift truck sector is a good example of how warehouse management can successfully integrate varied levels of technology throughout a warehouse operation without disruption. In 2022, the forklift truck market was worth $54.14 billion worldwide. There are several new technologies that are shaping the development of forklift trucks in the warehouse sector, such as:


  • electric and hybrid models
  • robotic and automated forklift tracking
  • new safety features such as sensors and obstacle detection systems
  • innovative rental and leasing arrangements.


Forklift truck drivers may need retraining for new machines, and for new technologies, and this can cause disruption as operatives adjust to their new methodologies. This can also impact the warehouse space as a whole, as people move from working with traditional diesel forklifts to new models which are silent, fast and largely automated.


The solution


Many warehouses now operate with inbound inventory being transported on traditional forklifts while inventory being pick and packed is often being handled by grid-based electric forklifts. This natural division of labour, which utilises legacy technology to the end of its life, also allows warehouse operatives to clearly recognise the different technology that is operating in different areas of the organisation.


New + Legacy Tech – the conclusions for warehousing


It’s always going to be impossible to remove legacy systems from the supply chain, not least because business cultures are often based on the technology that supports them. However, one way to engage staff with new technology is to use it to fill gaps in performance in the warehouse so that personnel see new technology as a resource that solves problems rather than as a source that creates difficulties. For example, new ways of managing inventory reduce delays, improve efficiency, and create greater customer satisfaction, but for warehouse personnel the key value to new technology is that it makes their lives easier, shortens the time they spend searching for inventory, and reduces returns. Selling warehouse staff on new technology means showing them how it helps them, as well as the company, achieve better results.


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