How Automation is Bringing Warehouses into the Future

How Automation Is Bringing Warehouses Into The Future

By Chris Crutchley on February 12, 2022
Learn how warehouses are transforming — and how it influences your business.

When it comes to logistics in the post-pandemic era, you need a warehouse that runs efficiently and can handle any situation without a misstep. That’s why so many companies are streamlining their warehouse operations by automating their most time-consuming processes.

If you’ve read about warehouse automation of late, you may feel like you need to totally overhaul your warehousing strategy ASAP just to keep up with customer demand. Not so fast. 

There are several different areas in which automation can be used in a warehouse, but knowing which ones to implement takes careful consideration of your scale, budget, and experience. With the market for warehouse automation projected to reach $30 billion by 2026, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by what could lie ahead.

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Read on for an inside look at automation today, including what it really looks like and how it can influence your logistics operations.

What is warehouse automation?

Let’s start with a simple question: What is “automation”? Automation refers to programming robots or software to perform repetitive tasks. Naturally, a warehouse is a place where countless tasks must be repeated day after day to keep inventory moving in and out seamlessly.

Warehouse automation encompasses two distinct sides. These are

  • automation using robots/machines designed to assist warehouse workers
  • automation using specialized software programming to complete repetitive processes.

Why automate? (And why do it right now?)

In case you were worried that this means robots are taking over the world, let’s clarify that implementing automated systems and machines does NOT make human workers obsolete. In reality, automation functions as a useful tool to be used alongside workers. 

Automating a monotonous and labor-intensive task frees up workers’ time and energy to focus on the more specialized tasks that can’t be programmed. For example, it’s estimated that the average warehouse worker spends 80 percent of their time walking back and forth in the warehouse, while only 20 percent of their time is actually spent doing activities that generate revenue.

Warehouse automation has been growing slowly but steadily in recent years. But the demand spike created by the pandemic has pushed the industry to adopt automation as a way to meet consumers’ expectations for faster shipping. 

Where Automation Is Today—And Where It’s Headed

Automation is a groundbreaking innovation, but it’s important to understand that it’s far from a one-size-fits-all solution. 

Warehouse managers can’t just buy all the latest autonomous robots and magically have a perfectly efficient operation; they have to carefully consider which automated systems will integrate into normal operations in a way that improves warehouse efficiency and helps employee productivity.

Here are a few up-and-coming trends in digital and machine automation that can increase the speed of fulfillment and allow more space for inventory. 

RELATED: Where Will Logistics Go in 2022? Key Trends to Watch

Warehouse Management System (WMS)

The mother of all warehouse automation, this management software keeps track of everything going on in the warehouse, such as what inventory is on-hand, what's going in/out, what warehouse machines they have and what they are doing (directing picking, packing, and shipping activity). 

This software is essential and widely used to keep everything running smoothly in the warehouse. The companies who already successfully implemented WMS software into their operations are the ones who felt the least sting from Covid-19 related demands and shortages. They're also the ones who will be ready for anything.

Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning

In warehouses, AI-based software makes use of historical data and modeling in order to predict what may happen and streamline everyday processes.

AI in the form of predictive modeling software can be used to more accurately predict demand surges and to manage inventory accordingly. Another tool, predictive maintenance software,  guards against downtime if something breaks, and makes warehouses safer for the workers. 

And when it comes to tasks like sorting, packing, and picking items off the shelf, AI software uses models to do everything as efficiently as possible—without damaging any inventory.

Voice picking

This system reads the order off when it comes in and directs the worker what to do- eliminating the need to read papers and juggle physical items.

Industrial internet of things(IoT)

This term refers to a network of connected devices in a setting(for example, a warehouse or a network of warehouses). This tool allows managers to better coordinate materials and be more efficient.

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems AS/RS

Automated storage and retrieval systems can include things like carousels and cranes to create one smoothly running system to transport inventory from storage to the packing area. 

The ASRS system is a master of space optimization, giving warehouses 85% more floor space compared to traditional shelves. This extra storage space is sorely needed to handle more inventory as well as COVID-19 social-distancing protocols.

Wearables

This could be anything from a GPS tracking bracelet to augmented reality glasses. These items feed important info on what the worker needs to do straight to the wearable, allowing them to focus more intently without needing to stop and consult papers or bulky electronics.

Autonomous vehicles 

Automated guided vehicles and autonomous mobile robots (AGVs) are primarily for moving items from place to place with a human operator. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) are used for similar tasks, but they are programmed to work without a human operator driving the vehicle. Both machines are evidently great for cutting out leg work for warehouse employees, but keep in mind the limitations of a totally autonomous machine versus one with a human operator.

Collaborative robots

As the name lets on, collaborative robots are designed to work in tandem with a human to help cut out leg work and heavy lifting. 

One of the primary functions of these so-called “cobots” is picking, or going to an item where it is being stored in the warehouse to retrieve it and bring it to the place where it will be packaged for shipment. This greatly reduces leg work for employees, giving them back valuable time to work on tasks that add value for the business.

Drones

Using drones to fly to a package for scanning could take seconds, even in huge warehouses. Drones are already used for delivery, and investment in drone tech is seeing an upswing in the post-pandemic world.  

However, this is not likely to be something that sees widespread adoption for some years to come. Even then, this type of tech will probably only be cost-effective for the largest and most well-resourced warehouses.

How will the uptake of automation influence your logistics?

Adopting automated processes will gradually lead to warehouses that are more efficient and which integrate various technologies seamlessly with workers.

Many of the problems lingering from the COVID-19—including the need to socially distance workers, shortage of labor due to virus spikes, demand uncertainty, and delays of all kinds—can be aided by the time and space saved through automated processes.

As always, visibility and predictive modeling remain key issues in warehousing. Both of these aspects will see significant improvements through the usage of warehouse management systems and AI-based softwares.

For e-commerce players trying to keep up with increased pressure to ship faster and uncertain demand, automation can provide a cushion. While some aspects of fulfillment may need to be carried out by a human labor force, others (like picking and packing or scanning ) can let workers focus their efforts on ensuring the highest quality of final shipments.

Partner with a logistics company working at the cutting edge

If your business is looking to take on automation strategically, you need a logistics partner that integrates automation carefully into its global network.

At CBIP, we make sure you can keep innovating alongside forward-thinking partners guiding the future of smart warehousing. Our custom plans ensure you get full visibility and the flexibility to expand with automation that makes sense, all in one integrated platform. As a 4PL firm with a foothold in all major markets, we ensure you get a wide range of options backed up by our Anchanto-powered order management technology.

Drop us an email today to find out how CBIP can keep you working smarter.

About Author

Chris Crutchley

Chris Crutchley is CBIP’s director of operations and finance. He has over a decade of corporate finance and operational expertise throughout the Asia Pacific.

In logistics, Chris strives to continuously innovate and challenge the industry’s norms in order to offer clients world-class service that emphasizes clear communication.

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