The Evolution of High-Tech Warehouses
More than inventory and people move through warehouses
The idea of “the best warehouse that money can buy” is kind of a funny concept. Ask around among HVAC distributors about what that would consist of, and the general reaction might be a mix of shrugs, apathy, and maybe even a little confusion at the question itself. Many users just don’t consider a warehouse the sort of place that inspires an involved or particularly high-tech wishlist.
And in a way, maybe they’re right. The most valuable warehouse isn’t necessarily the one that costs the most to design and build. A “high-end warehouse” is the one that saves its owner the most money in the long term through day-to-day efficiency and safety.
However, today’s owners can choose from a bigger range of ideas and technologies than ever before, all with an eye toward that idea of making money by saving money (and time). Three perspectives that serve and cut across the warehouse sector in different ways — a robotics company, a software company, and a company that offers design and other services — shed light on what the modern warehouse can do and how it is evolving.
EASY TO MISS
Start with what today’s owners often tend to look past in the design process.
“Warehouse profiling data is commonly overlooked,” said Jeff Peterson, senior director of solutions design for Ryder Supply Chain Solutions, “when it’s this data that actually drives the design, taking into account everything from in-month variability to seasonal volume peaks.”
If the data isn’t as comprehensive and accurate as possible, he continued, then that brand-new facility won’t be equipped to deliver the performance an operation would expect.
Other areas that may not receive enough attention, Peterson said, are accounting for cyclical demand, future network strategies, required process changes, and organizational readiness or change management.
Karen Leavitt, chief marketing officer (CMO) for Locus Robotics, sees the long-term view as something owners may not always embrace, at their own peril.
“Specifically, how to design the warehouse to appropriately plan for not only peak season but for sudden volume spikes and the ability to scale to support growth,” she advised. “Often, design is around a steady-state model or an average state, creating vulnerabilities when volume or capacity are strained.”
Leavitt also cautioned against a one-size-fits-all approach, calling it critical that operators consider scalability and flexibility. As an example, she said, “e-commerce picking in a warehouse can be significantly different than Omnichannel and store-replenishment picking. This has a direct effect on operations, efficiencies, and cost.”
Tony Corley is senior product marketing manager for Epicor Software. Ask for one or two investments to create a more top-tier warehouse, and he knows what ranks high on his list: barcode labeling and handheld devices.
Using these — “including details such as item, bin, lot number, and serial number” — not only improves basic receiving and picking accuracy in terms of things going where they should. It also improves ERP accuracy by decreasing lag time in reflecting updated circumstances. Benefits can extend to the sales counter and beyond.
This degree of accuracy, Corley said, “helps you reduce lost sales by delivering real-time information to field sales representatives and allows them to make alternative product recommendations if a specific part is out of stock.”
Back in the warehouse, he pointed out, users can leverage their ERP solution to set automatic replenishment guidelines based on minimum/maximum thresholds.
“Finally,” he said, “wirelessly tracking your inventory means you no longer have to shut down your warehouse during physical inventory.”
Leavitt sees the answer to the same question as pretty straightforward.
“Clearly, the need to incorporate proven technology into the design and operation of a warehouse is key,” she said. “Starting with a solid ERP system tied to a robust WMS or other types of operations systems helps to manage inventory, workflows, and enables workers to be more productive and effective.”
At the same time, as anyone who owns more than one electronic device can attest, interoperability between these systems can be much less straightforward.
“No one system will handle all your operations,” Leavitt confirmed. “Be sure systems will play nicely together.”
Contrary to the old saying, it really is possible to get good help these days. Of course, some modern labor may require less of a lunch break than an occasional battery recharge.
For some warehouse operations, especially in e-commerce, Leavitt has seen clients succeed by relying on autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to carry work throughout the space.
One benefit is the ability to minimize bolted-down infrastructures such as conveyors, she noted.
Also, “AMRs can be easily reconfigured as your infrastructure changes, something that is especially valuable in 3PLs with multi-tenant customers or regularly changing contract customers and product lines.”
Any such solutions, she reminded, must clear the bar for being a measurable value proposition for any given client. What’s right for e-commerce may not be right for many HVAC applications, but then again, sometimes certain tactics might be.
“Inbound operations increasingly consist of floor-loaded sea containers carrying cartons that must be unloaded by hand,” Peterson explained.
This, in turn, drives increased demand for inbound labor, as well as the potential for ergonomic concerns.
The scenario represents a mix of human and mechanical energies — but maybe, according to Peterson, not for all that long.
“Currently, multiple companies are in the final stages of developing technology that in the very near future will completely automate this manual unloading process,” he reported.
As for human productivity, Locus uses “gamification” to combat the fact that fulfillment is hard work. The approach “shows their performance stats in real time, using the robot’s display, creating a friendly competition with their co-workers,” Leavitt outlined.
Higher performers can be rewarded, she said, while lower performers can in turn be supported with remedial training or helpful instruction. Operators can build on the concept with leaderboards and team programs.
Of course, nobody wins in the case of injured employees. Leavitt and Peterson agree that aisle width, good lighting, and traffic management are key, supplemented by signage and other environmental protections.
Training is another fundamental for prevention, said the two executives. Leavitt reiterated that “workers are your most valuable asset, and they must be empowered to make good decisions.”
While they recognize safety as a cornerstone for operation, Peterson pointed out that this does not necessarily mean an additional cost. It’s more a case of making sure along the course of any design or upgrade “that attention to details that affect safety are incorporated.”
CMO Locus Robotic
MORE FOR LESS
The emphasis can tend to settle on products purchased, but Peterson mentioned a harder-to-see investment and what operators can avoid spending as a result.
“Investment in process and layout strategy is the basis for any high-end warehouse,” he said. “If travel or process changes can eliminate the need for expensive capital investment, that is always the preferred option.”
Beyond that, he said that “some of the IoT, telematics, and exoskeleton solutions are rather inexpensive solutions that have nice benefits.”
And for all the various advancements, Leavitt closed by turning back to the human component.
“Focus on things that contribute to the worker’s well-being as you strive to increase/improve productivity,” she advised. “Because it is already difficult to find and retain quality workers, whatever can be done to make the workplace quality better has a direct effect on worker motivation, retention, overall job satisfaction, and of course, productivity.”
Bonus Question: Results in Action
Q: Can you share stats or other info on how any recent technology upgrades have helped with turns/delivery time?
Senior director of solutions design
Ryder Supply Chain Solutions
With some of the advancements in warehouse automation, the returns are dramatically improving. Solutions like IoT, telematics, and wearables, as well as select autonomous mobile robot (AMR) and automated guided vehicle (AGV) applications, have a payback period of a year or two. These benefits are focused not only on productivity but also on safety, security, and employee well-being.
In our experience, incorporating Locus Robotics technology has consistently yielded two to three times worker productivity increases. In addition, due to improvements in workplace quality, worker recruitment and retention has improved markedly, lowering labor costs in an already tight market. Management also spends significantly less time training temporary workers, enabling them to be as productive as veteran workers almost immediately.
Senior product markting manager
One of Epicor’s customers recently stated that they reduced their manpower 30 percent by using wireless technology in their warehouse while increasing their accuracy. Another distributor who implemented Wireless Warehouse Management stated their picking speeds and efficiency skyrocketed by 60 percent. This huge savings significantly increased customer satisfaction. Using wireless technology to know the status of your warehouse at any given moment improves efficiency, reduces errors, and keeps you competitive.
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