Heavily automated warehouses are changing the nature of production
Look around the warehouse of the past, and what do you see? People – lots of people – operating heavy machinery. The work is arduous, manual, and dangerous. When one part of production breaks or slows down, the whole supply chain is compromised.
Today’s warehouses, however, look quite different. Disruptive technologies have allowed a new breed of warehouse management systems (WMS) to evolve, removing the constant need for human intervention. Instead of requiring human operators, most machinery can manage itself. Rather than working on the ‘man-to-goods’ principle, in which human employees ferry products from place to place, automated systems and invisible connectivity are steering warehouse operations towards ‘goods-to-man’. The results are lower labour costs, a safer working environment, and more efficient supply chain management. Here, we list six of the most transformative warehouse solutions enabling the change.
The first and most obvious technology that has changed warehouse operation, visibly speaking, is the integration of robots. Robots can do heavy duty manual tasks that humans wouldn’t necessarily be able to do, and they don’t get tired or ill. In 2014, Amazon bought US robotics manufacturer Kiva for $775m. Two years later, the ecommerce behemoth began to install the box-shaped bots at their warehouses. The robots are primarily focused on picking and speeding up the pace of deliveries by carrying entire shelves to human packers.
Drones, which arguably fit into the bot bracket, can access parts of the warehouse that would be dangerous for a human and impossible for a heavy robot. They can be flown to hard-to-reach spots in storage facilities, for example, to scan and count inventory.
Before the development of digital barcode scanning, tracking inventory was a hugely complicated and time consuming task. Not only that, but unavoidable human error and outdated records meant that organisations were never entirely sure how much inventory they had, or where specific items or products were at any given time. The answers to these problems have come with advanced digital scanning.
Scanning techniques have been vastly improved by RFID. The tag tracking technology is gradually becoming more sophisticated, and now almost anything at all can be fitted with a readable RFID tag. These tags can be used to feed information between specific parts of the production line, taking the guesswork out of supply chain management. Inditex, the owner of high street fashion brand Zara, tracks items from the warehouse to the store, giving logistics centres more visibility over the shipping process in order to reduce mistakes.
Just as you might ask Siri to book you a taxi, workers on the warehouse floor can submit reports and requests using voice-based tech. Voice directed warehousing (VDW) has been used in warehouses for decades, quite literally directing workers from control centres. However, voice technology has reached the stage at which there doesn’t necessarily need to be a human on the end of the line. Consider an Alexa device, for example, that could sync with all of the connected devices in the supply chain – now that’s an interesting conversation.
Adding voice guidance and response capabilities to warehouse management systems allows for instant communication between humans and machines. A supervisor might use voice, for example, to find out the status of a robotic arm. Instead of going to check the arm themselves or sending a typed command to another employee, the question could be answered almost immediately by a specific health report collected straight from the arm in real time.
Warehouses are hubs of data, drawing information from multiple sources and distributing it through various channels. With cloud storage, it’s much cheaper and easier to keep track of this information. According to Oracle, Oracle Warehouse Management Cloud offers improved inventory and shipment accuracy, total inventory visibility, and multichannel support so that customers can buy, receive and return however and wherever they choose.
Investing in self updating, hosted computer software means that companies can avoid the task of building systems in house, and can collaborate more fluidly with partners, suppliers, and clients. That said, relying on cloud necessitates some important questions surrounding data. Who owns the data, who can access it, and how do you reliably protect the information?
5) Artificial intelligence
Electronic data interchange (EDI) is vital to all warehouse processes, from purchase orders to inventory planning. EDI enables the flow of information between systems, facilitating collaboration both within the warehouse and with external data sources. Without an AI layer, this data would remain untapped.
What intelligent systems are doing, in essence, is advanced data analytics. For warehouses, one of the major benefits of artificially intelligent data management is predictive analytics. For example, if a forklift begins to show signs of wear and tear, an alert can be automatically issued to call in a mechanic before a problem arises. This goes hand in hand with prescriptive analytics, which identifies a problem and then offers a solution.
6) Autonomous vehicles
We might be a long way off from hopping into a self driving car, but semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles are well established in warehouse environments. To return to the forklift example, Carlsberg introduced two Elettric 80 laser guided vehicles (LGVs) to its Falkenberg warehouse in 2004. While this isn’t the autonomy that Waymo or any of the major automakers might be working on, it certainly shows just how quick warehouse environments have been to catch on to tech trends.
As well as trialling driverless grocery deliveries back in 2017, Ocado has partnered with Oxbotica to deploy ‘automated guidance vehicles‘ within their warehouses. Some parts of warehouses, like freezer storage facilities, are simply too cold for robots (or humans, for that matter) to function reliably. Until the robots become more robust, autonomous vehicles are bridging the gap.
As these examples show, thinking of production as human labour is no longer relevant – particularly for businesses that want long term continuity. Nowhere is the shift from manual to automation more evident than in warehouses. In smart warehouses, hardware and software operate in sync, driving goods-to-man rather than human retrieval. The advantages are obvious: less downtime, less resource expenditure, and less time to market. While this doesn’t mean that humans have been taken out of the equation, the nature of work has been irreversibly changed.
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