Logistics & Material Handling
Three new technologies impacting warehouse operations
By Jay Voorheis
Transform your warehouse into an Industry 4.0–enabled distribution centre
By Jay Voorheis
New developments in artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics, paired with technologies like mobile devices and advanced machinery, are changing the way manufacturing companies conduct business.
Driven by increasing customer demands and industry challenges such as labour shortages, many manufacturing and warehouse managers find themselves needing to reinvent old processes to achieve unmatched productivity and efficiency all while maintaining cost, growth and profit goals. While this is no easy feat, more manufacturers are turning to technology to give them an operational and competitive edge.
As warehouses across the world undergo digital transformation, mobile devices, intelligent technology and data analytics will have the greatest immediate impact. While most are familiar with these trends, many are not aware of the profound impact they will have on the warehouses of the future.
Trend 1: Mobile devices
Mobile devices are not a new concept in the eyes of a consumer, but they’re still relatively new to the warehouse work environment. According to VDC Research, 53 per cent of IT decision makers say their mobility deployments are immature or outdated. As mobile technologies become ubiquitous, the benefits of having a connected workforce have become more apparent.
On a rolling basis, new mobile devices are being introduced into the plant and warehouse workplace, streamlining the lives of workers that find themselves rarely stationary at their desks. By providing workers with mobile devices to access enterprise systems and real-time communication regardless of location, they can reduce time spent traveling back and forth between the office and plant floor to update reports and share information and thus streamline business operations.
Having covered the basic needs for mobile work, the next growing wave is coming from operations managers in the plants and warehouses that are deploying rugged mobile computers, tablets and handhelds managed and secured by the enterprise. These managers recognize that rugged devices are purpose-built and provide the productivity, safety and data security features needed in a manufacturing or warehouse work environment.
These devices provide durability for use in high and low temperatures, dirt and dust, high altitude, vibrations and drops. Screen are visible for use under bright, glaring lights or direct outdoor sunlight. Touchscreens can be used even with gloves, and there are options for use in hazardous environments.
Rugged mobile devices can optimize data collection, streamline processes and improve safety – providing the opportunity for worker productivity gains. For example, in an order-picking process, employees are equipped with headsets and a handheld device with a barcode reader to access picking instructions and confirm their picks back to the system. The solution is enabled with voice-picking software integrated with the warehouse management system (WMS).
Once the employee picks and scans the item’s barcode with their handheld device or confirms via voice, the system is updated that the correct item was picked. Then, the voice system provides direction on the next item that needs to be picked and where it’s located. Customers deploying this type of mobile-enabled solution have bolstered productivity between 10 to 25 per cent.
Trend 2: Intelligent technologies
Intelligent technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) are poised to make big waves in a number of industries, but manufacturing in particular will see radical changes as a result. AI and IoT contribute to networks of data, optimizing information sharing and communication. In manufacturing, these networks of communication can help with quality control, reduce materials waste, increase uptime and deliver improvements to productivity and efficiency.
AI has the ability to automate and streamline the manufacturing ecosystem, making data-driven decisions ranging from simple advising to more elaborate executive counselling. For example, instead of relying on workers to spot defects during quality assurance – a time-consuming, menial task – AI algorithms can be programmed to spot defects in as short of time as a fraction of a second. Automating routine tasks enables workers to complete higher level and more important tasks rather than other forms of tedious labour or administrative work.
IoT-enabled sensors play a large role in streamlining business processes in the warehouse, monitoring inventory and preventing unexpected shortages that would negatively affect output. Sensors can track data such as temperature, humidity, light and even where products are located. This ensures that goods are stored properly and that the right items are where they’re supposed to be, even tracking how they move through warehouse operations to pinpoint inefficiencies.
IoT has the potential to deliver large amounts of real-time, actionable data that can be accessed at any time via mobile devices and analyzed to optimize warehouse practices and make smarter business decisions. For example, data retrieved from IoT sensors may show that items moving through the warehouse spend the most time in the picking process. A warehouse executive who’s trying to improve shipment times would be able to pinpoint that holdup and decide to invest in picking technology to speed up the process, improving the overall business.
Perhaps one of the most impactful benefits intelligent technology will bring to warehouse operations is the ability to perform predictive maintenance. IoT sensors can be used around the warehouse to collect parameters from equipment and send it to the cloud-based database. AI and machine learning can then interpret the data collected by the sensors to determine functioning and failure patterns, ultimately learning when equipment is likely to fail before it happens. If AI identifies a potential failure is likely to happen, it can automatically send alerts to maintenance technicians’ devices in real-time. This knowledge enables maintenance teams to address and service the equipment before it becomes a problem, significantly increasing uptime.
Trend 3: Data analytics
To gain a greater advantage from mobile devices and intelligent technology, data analytics are crucial. The data itself offers insights into equipment, inventory, business processes and consumers, but the way it’s analyzed will empower managers and executives to optimize the manufacturing and warehousing process.
Predictive analytics can use historic data to make decisions and plan for the future based on inventory, consumer choices and trends. It creates models and charts through data algorithms to mark the probability of future events to help warehouses gauge demand for products, probable supply chain risks and potential opportunities in the short and long term.
For example, seasonal demand fluctuations can be difficult for warehouses to navigate. Having too much or not enough inventory of certain products can create large economic and operational burdens on warehouses. By using data on consumer behaviour and past demand patterns, predictive analytics can create a more accurate forecast of consumer demand and warehouses can prepare in advance, ultimately improving overall customer service and satisfaction. Having data analytics at the fingertips of warehouse managers results in smarter business decisions backed by intricate data.
Warehouses today face numerous challenges including faster shipping expectations, seasonal demand fluctuations, order returns, omni-channel sales and more. While many are turning to technology to give them a competitive advantage, it can be difficult to evaluate which technologies to invest in for the greatest ROI. By investing in mobile devices, intelligent technologies and data analytics systems, warehouses not only see measurable short-term results, but also benefit from long-term ROI.
Jay Voorheis is the national sales manager for Panasonic.