Warehouse Challenges: How technology helps
3rd February 2017 | Gwynne Richards
Gwynne Richards discusses how technology can facilitate warehousing challenges and encourage people to join the industry
This week I was invited to speak to over 80 students at Cardiff Business School on the subject of ‘The challenges faced by warehouses and fulfilment centres and what are the answers?’
At the beginning of the talk I asked how many students were planning on a career in warehouse management and only one person put their hand up. Challenge number one was how to attract more people into the industry at all levels.
By the end of the talk, there were eight hands in the air. People’s perception of warehousing seems to be that they are dark, dingy buildings where companies store things. This may be the case in some warehouses today, but many are clean and modern with a great deal of technology and automation.
So onto the other challenges. These included the pressure on warehouse managers to:
- reduce cost,
- facilitate the storage of multiple sku,
- manage peaks in order profiles such as Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Singles Day, Christmas and New Year sales,
- deal with increasingly shorter order lead times.
Other challenges include the fact that we have an ageing workforce in many countries and pressure from consumers to be more environmentally friendly.
How do we overcome these challenges? Many of the answers tend to revolve around the introduction of technology and automation.
We are currently seeing a progression from paper picking, through scanning to voice, and now onto vision picking. Some companies are combining voice with vision to enhance the picker experience and increase productivity and accuracy.
These are still very much person-to-goods systems where the operative travels through the warehouse to pick the orders. Zone picking through the use of pick-to-light systems and batch picking utilizing put-to-light systems go some way to reduce travel, which is still seen as the biggest labour cost factor. With shorter order lead times and the growth of e-commerce, we are now seeing an increase in goods-to-person systems. The growth in automation is certainly witnessed in retail warehouses and fulfilment centres.
These automation systems vary significantly and include automated storage and retrieval systems, and mini load systems utilizing shuttle technology, such as Swisslog’s Autostore solution whereby totes are stored one on top of the other and robots transporting shelving to a manned station. These are supplied by companies such as EiraTech, Kiva, Swisslog and Grey Orange.
All of these goods-to-person systems can increase productivity and accuracy, shorten order lead times, and reduce labour. i-Herb.com, who introduced Bastian Solutions’ i-bot robots into their second warehouse, are able to process orders with only 10 per cent of the labour required in their original manual warehouse. Other companies, such as Boston Dynamics, are working on humanoid robots to carry out tasks within the warehouse. Although not quite there yet in terms of dexterity and speed compared to us humans, it won’t be long.
However, all this comes at a cost. Not only in terms of monetary investment but also, as pointed out by one of the students, what happens to the labour – not all of them will be able to upskill to become technicians and engineers. Another challenge to add to the list.
We also discussed the current thought leaders in logistics – Amazon – and their ideas of floating warehouses – not sea going vessels but airships with the ability to hold stock, process orders with deliver using drones.
I still have my doubts about drone delivery especially where cities have blocks of flats rather than houses and gardens as landing pads and the danger posed to aircraft and pedestrians.
Citizens of countries with a gun culture could see this as a new sport with a prize every time, providing of course that it’s not on its return journey to the warehouse.
About the author: Gwynne Richards has over thirty years' experience in warehouse management and logistics. As well as running his own successful logistics consultancy, he provides a number of courses on warehouse and transport management for practitioners. He is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Warwick and the University of Aston.
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