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Anatomy of a Warehouse of the Future

Anatomy of a Warehouse of the Future


by Stuart Scott, Solutions Marketing Lead, Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific

How do you imagine the warehouse of the future to look like? It is probably one that is fully robotised, with nary a person in sight. For the more imaginative ones amongst us, we may think of drones seamlessly whizzing around – barely missing one another – picking up items from their receptacles and delivering them to droids waiting at sorting stations.

That picture does not seem too far from reality. We are already starting to see the warehouse of the future taking shape right now. What is driving the evolution?

The impact of e-commerce on warehouses

The boom of e-commerce has led to changes happening in the warehouse ecosystem. e-Commerce, amongst other innovative technologies, has provided customers an array of options to choose, purchase, and receive goods and has in turn fuelled greater expectations and demand – leading to the need for changes in warehouses.

With heightened demands from the marketplace, delivery needs to be faster yet accurate – as customers increasingly expect same-day – or even time-definite deliveries (delivery as and when required). The logistics industry also needs to be able to quickly assess and predict the supply and demand of any given item. A reliable infrastructure coupled with ample adoption of technology, will allow for the logistics industry to withstand and accommodate the diverse e-commerce requirements.

Warehouses of the future are embodiments of technology

Market demands will continue to evolve and increasingly warehouses will see the need to constantly revamp themselves to increase productivity and efficiency, to stay competitive. In the latest Zebra Warehouse 2020 Vision Study, at least 74 per cent of warehouse managers indicated that they have plans to outfit their staff with more and better technology that increases visibility of operations, and automate 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 allows longer lead time before they have to be replenished.

The study also highlights the top five technologies warehouse managers are most interested in and they include the Internet of Things (IoT), barcoding, tablet computers, big data/analytics, and automation. Wearables and RFID are also two of the most sought after technologies in warehouses. Compared with results from the 2015 vision study, only 40 per cent of warehouses surveyed then were planning to adopt RFID however 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 per cent in 2015 to 86 per cent in 2020. In the meantime, the use of pen and paper is expected to drop to 24 per cent in the next four years, down from 95 per cent just a couple of years ago.

These technologies bring about numerous benefits: from increased productivity amongst workers, to faster delivery time and creating value for end-customers. The wearables deployed in warehouses are often multi-modal, which means, with one device, workers can access multiple functions. For instance, the device can “listen” 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.

Working faster & better

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 intently hope to slash that to 36 hours – a 20 per cent productivity increase. To achieve that, the industry has started 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 warehouses, with 62 per cent of respondents planning to deploy both voice and screen picking by 2020.

Using touch-screen format for enterprise mobile devices and computers, loaded with a familiar operating system like Android, can also ease the learning curve for workers who are often hired on a casual basis to meet seasonal demands.

Interleaving is also 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 per cent, and is expected to grow by 20 per cent by 2020. By 2020, warehouses will also expand the use of cross-docking (according to 61 per cent 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 warehouses; productivity could take a quantum leap in the years to come.

Gaining visibility is key for the warehouse of the future

The rapid growth of e-commerce has transformed the operational demands placed upon warehouses, heightening various expectations. With customers expecting next-day, 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. Such demands from the different market sectors will only continue to evolve. In order to stay competitive, warehouses must constantly revamp themselves and review their current operational ecosystem to ensure on-going productivity and efficiency.

The Zebra Warehouse 2020 Vision Study provides warehouse operators several key 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. This allows warehouse operators to understand the importance of preparing their facilities for the future.

About the Author

Stuart has more than 25 years’ experience in automatic identification and communication technologies including mobile computing, BYOD, wireless networks, data capture, RFID and the Internet Things (IoT). Having worked in both global and regional roles, directly with customers and channel partners, Stuart brings market know-how of how technologies can be applied to help businesses reduce cost, improve efficiency, increase market share and improve customer satisfaction.