How do you imagine the future warehouse to look like? It’s probably one that’s fully robotised, with nary a person in sight. For the more imaginative ones amongst us, we may think of drones whizzing around – barely missing one another – picking up items from their receptacles and delivering them to droids waiting at sorting stations. That picture doesn’t seem too far away from reality – and we are starting to see the warehouse of the future take shape right now. What’s driving the evolution?
The growing importance of warehouses
Several evolutions have happened in the warehouse industry. A traditional warehouse is staffed with workers manually stocking shelves, running from aisle to aisle and filling out paperwork with pen and paper. Then, we are starting to see additions to the warehouse – barcode printers and scanners, handheld computers, vehicle mounted computers, RFID scanners and printers, robots and automated shelves; some warehouses are even talking about using drones for asset location and cycle counting.
To further understand the trends that are taking place in the warehouse, we first need to know what is happening outside of the warehouse. E-commerce is booming in Asia, led by two super-spending powers – China and India. Consumers in Asia Pacific – a region that is home to 60% of the world’s population – is twice as likely to purchase online than in brick-and-mortar stores. The region is on track to become the largest e-commerce market globally in the next five years, as predicted by MasterCard.
Such tremendous growth is predicted based on several drivers. First, the middle class population, with greater disposable income in Asia is expanding rapidly. Second, soaring mobile and internet penetration in the region is initiating more users to the pleasures of shopping online. Third, a cluster of e-commerce sites has emerged in Asia, from international players like Taobao and Rakuten, to smaller blogshops and monobrand sites, offering numerous options to consumers. Last but not least, the e-commerce industry is now backed by maturing logistics; reliable infrastructure coupled with ample use of technology allows the logistics industry to buttress the diversifying e-commerce requirements, be it same-day delivery or predicting supply and demand of a given item.
Under such circumstances, warehouses need to constantly revamp themselves to increase productivity and efficiency. The Zebra Warehouse 2020 Vision Study reveals several interesting findings that gives an insight into the current state of the industry and trends as seen by decision makers for the next 3-4 years.
Embodiments of technology
The study shows that at least 74% of warehouse managers have plans to outfit their staff with more and better technology that increases visibility of operations and automates tasks that were previously performed manually. For example, barcoding and RFID-tagging items that are traversing across the warehouse helps staff accurately track their location and remaining stock, in turn allowing longer lead time before they have to be replenished.
According to our survey, the top five technologies that warehouse managers are most interested in include Internet of Things (IoT), barcoding, tablet computers, Big Data/Analytics and automation. Wearable and RFID are also two sought after technologies in the warehouse. Compared with results for the 2015 vision study, only 40% of warehouses surveyed were planning to adopt RFID then but the figure has grown twofold in the latest survey.
With ergonomic wearables and handheld computers built for the enterprise environment, workers are enabled to scan and track items with faster speed, less effort and better accuracy. The use of mobile handheld computers and tablets with real-time access to warehouse management systems will double from 40% in 2015 to 86% in 2020. In the meantime, the use of pen and paper is expected to drop to 24% in the next four years, down from 95% just a few years ago. These technologies bring about numerous benefits—from increased productivity amongst workers to faster delivery time, creating value for end-customers.
The wearables deployed in the warehouse are often multimodal, which means, with one device, workers can access multiple functions. For instance, the device can ‘hear’ and respond to voice prompts, display text or pictorial information on its screen, scan barcodes and capture RFID tags, take a picture to identify damage on an item, and allow workers to input the quantity of items they would like to pick on the touch screen.
A better way to work
According to the same Zebra study, warehouse managers estimate that 50 hours are spent on training for new staff to reach maximum productivity, and they expressly hope to slash that to 36 hours – a 20% productivity increase.
To achieve that, the industry is adopting voice-and screen directed inventory picking and replenishment in the next five years. In this scenario, operators are equipped with a mobile device or voice-dedicated terminal and a headset with microphone. They receive voice prompts and perform the tasks. Voice-and-screen picking is designed to free up an operator’s hands and eyes so he can focus on the task at hand. Picking technology featuring voice commands is expected to be huge in the warehouse, with 62% of respondents planning to deploy both voice and screen picking by 2020.
Using a touch screen format for enterprise mobile devices and computers, loaded with a familiar operating system like Android, also eases the learning curve for workers who are often hired on a casual basis to meet seasonal demands. Interleaving is being considered to boost worker efficiency too. In this scenario, employees’ picking activities are maximised by assigning them multiple tasks in one journey. This can increase productivity by 10-40%, and is expected to grow by 20% by 2020.
By 2020, warehouses will also expand the use of crossdocking (according to 61% of survey respondents), a practice of unloading materials from an incoming truck and loading those materials directly unto an outgoing truck, with little to no storage in between. From utilising technology to changing the ways of doing things in the warehouse, productivity could take a quantum leap in the years to come.
Enhanced visibility into warehouse operations
In the business world, manufacturers and distributors often find themselves to be at the mercy of what is called the ‘bullwhip effect’, whereby a small change at one end of the supply chain causes a much bigger change at the other end, making predicting supply and demand an elusive practice.
Experts say that the bullwhip effect results from bad or incomplete information; this means, to solve the issue, businesses need to make the information better by knowing what is happening as it is happening. This is where the concept of visibility comes in. Enhanced visibility is achieved via the use of technology in the warehouse. For instance, pen-and-paper-based spreadsheets are to be replaced with mobile handheld computers and tablets to provide real-time access and data.
With barcodes, data entry and proof of delivery can now be achieved with a single scan – whether in the warehouse or out on the field. Similarly, RFID comes to the rescue. An RFID tag works independently and effectively. Products with RFID tags talk with readers or sensors, letting warehouse staff know when stock is running low, creating real-time visibility into what they are, where they are and even the condition they are in.
With customers expecting nextday, if not two-hour, deliveries, it has become more crucial than ever for warehouses to equip themselves for the future today. The ability to predict supply and demand, increase productivity, and minimise errors are some of the key benefits when organisations increase their visibility of their operations with Enterprise Asset Intelligence solutions.
The article is reproduced with courtesy to Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific