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Thanks to developing technology, warehouse operations look a lot different at present than they did 20-25 years ago. Before the 21st century, data entry was a manual process and warehouse workers spent half of their time on paperwork.
However, advancements in technology have helped warehouses evolve. Warehouses are getting smarter as time goes on, accommodating warehouse management systems (WMS), blockchain technology, and state-of-the-art robotics.
These technologies will eventually allow warehouses to function entirely on their own. According to Logistics Bureau, “warehouse managers and technicians will simply monitor the operational status from their homes, using laptops or tablets, make adjustments as needed, and occasionally respond to more serious situations by riding out in their (probably driverless) cars to get hands-on with machinery or inventory.”
Developing smart warehouse technology will help companies navigate the following challenges:
- Shortages in warehouse operators
- Narrowing delivery windows
- Occurrences of human error
- E-commerce and omnichannel shipments
- The fulfillment of small orders
It will also provide the following benefits:
- Reduced labor costs
- Faster production times
- Diminished risk of processing errors
- Increased productivity and efficiency
- Better management of inventory
Warehouses with the latest technology operate like industrial command stations, offering the following functions (in addition to storage):
- Just-in-time packaging
- Product customization
- Customer collection services
Warehouses are also responsible for restocking returned items. Research shows social media commerce encourages impulse buys, and 20% of online consumers end up making returns. This is where reverse logistics come into play. Once returned items are dropped off at a warehouse, technology restores them to inventory. Without a doubt, smart technology is helping companies meet the demands of customers who experience buyer’s remorse, expect quick delivery, and have little tolerance for mistakes.
Let’s dive into warehousing tech trends, starting with WMS. These softwares automate warehouse tasks and identify ways to optimize warehouse processes. There have been a variety of recent WMS improvements, including:
- Voice technology, which helps warehouse workers select orders, assess inventory, and accept shipments. Capable of reading verbal instructions and sending delivery confirmations, WMS voice technology frees up workers’ hands and is easily understood, reducing the likelihood of a worker misinterpreting information.
- Machine-to-machine technology, which enables information transfer between computers and WMS. This data exchange can help WMS collect and manage information from warehouse machines.
- Machine learning, a “promising but young” technology for WMS, according to Forbes. This technology will be worth the wait; machine learning will enable WMS to gather business insights, predict how long processes will take given certain conditions, and send instructions to robots.
- Mobile devices, like barcode scanners, tablets, and radio-frequency identification (RFID). Barcode scanners enable WMS to keep an accurate picklist of the materials being used for each order, as well as shipping information. RFID shows the physical location of items and greatly increases warehouse efficiency. These days, the technology that lets warehouse workers or machines transmit data from anywhere is both valuable and necessary.
- Changes to user interfaces, which make WMS easier to use and more engaging. Companies are working on displaying data in logical formats “…[to package] and [represent] information for…the supervisory workforce,” says Dwight Klappich, Gartner’s Research Vice President.
- Internet of Things (IoT), which connects devices to the Internet and creates a flow of information between them. Applied to WMS, IoT simplifies pallet tracking, data analysis, and forecasting. The main components of this technology include sensors, Internet connectivity, and computer processors, the last of which maintain the unique identification of each device. Discover more ways to use IoT in warehousing here.
The integration of blockchain technology in warehouse systems is another major and recent advancement in supply chain operations. At its core, blockchain secures data while making it visible to multiple systems at once. Companies are starting to see the advantages of using it in the areas of equipment, inventory management, order notifications, and vendor/supplier data.
While WMS coordinate warehouse operations and blockchain protects and shares the data WMS use, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) perform physical tasks to fulfill orders. Since AMRs move faster and make less errors than humans, they’re revolutionizing work like packaging and picking pallets. AMRs include drones, driverless forklifts, automated conveyor belts, and more.
Without a doubt, technology is the key to modern warehousing, but it comes with a price. Automated solutions—like AMRs—and blockchain are expensive and often necessitate renovations from the ground up for installation. What’s more, it can take as many as five years for them to yield positive return on investment (ROI). Companies need to have answers for these challenges (and know how automation will impact their labor forces) before investing in AMRs.
Software, on the other hand, is less expensive and provides quicker ROI than automation. More and more companies have been implementing WMS over the last decade, but this technology still doesn’t have an adoption rate over 75%. Warehouses that are still running on Excel desperately need upgrades to WMS.
As technology becomes more affordable, small- and medium-size businesses will have an easier time investing in it. One of the largest motivators for companies to implement new technology is greener processes. As distribution centers fill up with smart technology, their carbon footprints will naturally go down. More technology means less people, and less people means fewer resources—lights, HVAC systems, etc.—are required to keep humans comfortable in warehouses. In other words, warehouses that are built for technology are more environmentally friendly than ones that are built for humans. With the help of technology like WMS, blockchain and AMRs, companies can shift to greener practices.