Tasked with supporting the fulfillment across a growing number of distribution channels, warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) are increasingly looked upon as strategic business assets versus cost centers.
Where in the past a warehouse or DC was simply a storage facility for goods or a place to put “stuff” as it made its way through the supply chain, the modern-day facility must be agile and capable enough to support brick-and-mortar, e-commerce, B2B, home deliveries and parcel shipments—to name just a few.
Achieving this balance requires one of two things: a whole lot of labor and real estate, or advanced technology that helps to offset issues like high labor costs while also streamlining the process and making it more efficient than ever.
And while most companies are at least thinking about how to make that happen, many are still using antiquated processes like pen-and-paper and spreadsheets to manage inventory and track product movement within the four walls of the warehouse.
“The majority of companies out there are still using basic 101 warehousing at this point,” says Norm Saenz, managing director at supply chain consultancy St. Onge Co. “Even the larger shippers are trying to get better in areas like automation, robotics, virtual reality, voice and radio frequency identification, in an effort to get to the ‘next level’ with
The good news is that software and equipment vendors aren’t resting on their laurels, nor are they standing by and allowing companies’ warehousing strategies to fall into the dark ages. From autonomous mobile robots to complete supply chain solutions to advanced inventory tracking systems, the options continue to proliferate and drive logistics professionals to develop smarter, more efficient facilities. With that in mind, here are six ways warehouse management is evolving, along with a peek at what we can expect in the next five years.
Much like their end customers expect quick, personalized service, today’s logistics professionals are turning to their warehouse management systems (WMS) software vendors and asking for systems that accommodate their specific company’s needs and pain points.
“WMS is kind of behind the curve right now in terms of building out personalization,” says Matthew Deep, vice president of information technology at DMLogic. “Going forward, however, I expect WMS rollouts that go beyond the ‘round peg in a round hole’ approach, and that feature very flexible, adaptable software functionalities.”
For example, Deep says he sees more logistics operations asking for WMS that can be built out rapidly and put in place without having to go back to the vendor for help, support, and additional training. “Through those customizations, logistics managers can train their own people a lot faster than they’d be able to with a more standard WMS offering,” says Deep. “Knowing this, software developers are now building out platforms that are as flexible as possible, and that cater to an increasingly fickle customer.”
The walls between warehouse control systems (WCS) and WMS are coming down, and the former is playing a larger role in the overall management of a warehouse’s inventory. This is particularly true for companies that are putting more automation into their warehouses and DCs, says Saenz.
Historically, WCS provided the interface for material handling systems (i.e., carousels, sorters, conveyors, etc.), while WMS managed processes, people, and activities like shipments and orders. “We’ve worked with numerous companies that were putting in new automation along with new WCS and looking at how to leverage their WCS investments for warehouse management functionality,” says Saenz, who expects this trend to continue as the lines between WCS and WMS continue to blur.
Wärtsilä and DHL have completed a successful pilot where the companies tested Fetch Robotics to investigate possibilities to utilize the latest technology innovations in the daily operations of the warehouse. The robots are designed to work alongside employees, and to relieve them from physically strenuous tasks.
At Rochester Drug, a mobile piece-picking robot named Adam roams aisles of inventory, selecting items directly from shelves without human intervention. Finally, at Whirlpool, 54 robotic tuggers, each with a stereo camera-based navigation system from Seegrid, deliver washing machine parts to 24 locations on assembly and sub-assembly lines in Clyde, Ohio.
This is just a glimpse of what’s to come on the mobile robot front, where Dwight Klappich, research vice president at Gartner, says we’re “on the cusp of some very radical changes to the warehouse thanks to automated robots.”
And while warehouses and DCs have beenequipped with what Klappich calls “bolted to the floor” automation for nearly 40 years now, such equipment has been expensive to design, build, and install—and complicated to support.
“But once a logistics operations has paid all of that back, it could dramatically lower its costs to handle product,” Klappich points out. “In the future, all of that technology may be completely or mostly autonomous.”
To be most effective on the warehouse floor, Clint Reiser, research analyst with Boston-based ARC Advisory Group, says that the robots themselves are going to have to become more intelligent and universal in their applications—and they’re going to have to learn how to play well with an existing, human workforce.
Reiser points to Fetch Robotics as one company that’s making headway in this direction, having successfully piloted a project where a U.S. customer wanted robots that could sit within a certain zone on the warehouse floor, collect items gathered by human pickers, take those goods to a packing station and then return to the picker after its cart was emptied. “This is one way robots are helping to streamline things, but there are definitely more opportunities ahead in that realm,” says Reiser, who sees the optimization of robotics in conjunction with pickers as a good way to streamline warehousing processes without adding additional labor. “It’s all about getting the robotics coordinated with the workforce.”
Klappich sees an industry that’s lagging behind its counterparts when it comes to advanced planning. In fact, he says it’s not unusual at all for warehouse managers to have the mindset of, “Well, you can’t plan in a warehouse. Our job is to do what we have to do to get stuff in and out the door.”
As a result, warehouse and logistics managers are often very good at expediting, but not as good at planning for the here-and-now or for the future. However, that could change over the next few years as forces like e-commerce and omni-channel are pushing managers to rethink the way they approach their jobs.
“When you get into high-volume e-commerce, more companies are using warehouse execution systems [WES] to apply more sophisticated logic to how they manage their work,” says Klappich, who sees optimization and machine learning (i.e., giving computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed to do so) techniques as viable ways to plan in advance in even the most challenging distribution environment.
“Both Manhattan and Softeon are developing [solutions] that help companies look more carefully at how to apply work optimization techniques in high-volume distribution environments, such as those that we see with e-commerce,” says Klappich.
In a similar vein, he expects more companies to move away from “after the fact” reporting in areas like labor, where questions like: “how did Sally do yesterday?” can be flipped around to “what do we need to accomplish today or this week?” or “do we need to shift workers from receiving to packing because the latter is behind schedule?”
“With good advanced planning,” says Klappich, “shippers can effectively flip the emphasis from the rear-view mirror to the windshield, and gain some good efficiencies as a result.”
Looking out a few years, Reiser expects more technology vendors to join hands and come up with automated solutions that are specifically targeted to the warehouse. This is an important point because so many of today’s innovators on the robotics side are small, startup firms that may be good at inventing and innovating, but may not necessarily be able to sustain their businesses for the long haul.
“In the next couple of years, we’re going to see some interesting stories of how systems integrators/warehouse automation providers work together with smaller, autonomous, collaborative robotics firms to develop new solutions,” Reiser predicts. “The established WMS vendors will also get in on the game and come together on some projects. It will be interesting to see how all of that plays out.”