With warehouse efficiency being so closely tied to customer satisfaction for retailers, e-commerce shippers, and many other enterprises, we’re seeing a growing number of companies and logistics providers integrating, existing, and emerging technologies into their long-range supply chain strategies.
Focused on optimizing workflows, enhancing picking, and packing accuracy, improving inventory management, and making better use of labor, these firms know that warehouses aren’t built “just to store a bunch of stuff.”In fact, they’re viewing their warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) as critical links to profitability, supply chain efficiency, and overall business success.
Knowing this, Schenker Inc., has been experimenting with, investing in, and implementing a host of new technologies that support shippers’ increasing needs for a streamlined logistics process. At the heart of these efforts lies the warehouse, where these innovations are supporting and optimizing management both within the four walls and across the entire global supply chain:
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Simplified Warehouse Management Systems (WMS)
Charged with managing the operations of a warehouse or distribution center by orchestrating processes like receiving, put-away, stock locating, inventory management, cycle counting, task interleaving, wave planning, and other activities, WMS works best on a zero-modification strategy. In other words, the fewer the software customizations and tweaks, the better. So, while there’s still a lot of custom WMS-building taking place, we’re actually moving in the opposite direction and created a WMS environment where users can take updates much like their desktop or smartphone apps via a single “push” from a vendor (and, out into the field) versus having to be subjected to costly upgrades. We’ve already pulled this off to some degree, but there’s certainly opportunity to do more of this via a simplified deployment strategy. For example, our deployment teams build “companion apps,” for smart phones or web portals that allow users to use WMS commands and controls directly through those channels. This also helps to support the case for using a third-party logistics (3PL) provider versus investing in and maintaining an internal WMS. When the 3PL owns the software, for example, it pays for all of the upgrades and manages all of the intricacies of running it. The technology is always current and the shipper always has the latest and greatest technology at its fingertips.
Warehouse Robotics Come of Age
Focused on improving productivity, increasing order accuracy, reducing safety incidents and/or speeding up cycle times, a growing number of companies are exploring the notion of robots in the warehouse. And while the technology is still fairly new, few can argue the merits of infusing mobile, autonomous robots into an environment that would clearly benefit from automation. “We’re not 100% there yet, but we’re pretty far along the path to having a turnkey robotic, item-level picking solution for the market,” Dematic’s Mike Khodl told Modern Material Handling, with the key focus right now on making robots that can differentiate specific items, pick them, and then place them into an order. Driven in part by the tight labor market, all companies are looking for ways to replace and/or augment human capabilities with more automated systems. At Schenker, we’re exploring numerous automated picking solutions that work side-by-side with people, and that don’t need to take breaks or sick days. More and more, we’re seeing that these solutions truly pay for themselves and provide high ROI in the warehouse environment.
Virtual Reality as a Training Tool
Already in use for gaming and entertainment, virtual reality (VR)—or the complete immersion in a virtual world—is making its way into warehouses and DCs. Early adopters are using it to train and onboard employees who would otherwise need time-intensive sessions to get up to speed to handle, say, a temporary/seasonal job picking and packing in warehouse. We’ve been experimenting with and doing some consultations on the use of VR with one large, global electronics company. Is it inconceivable that we create forklift training simulators much like a flight simulator? These efforts are still in the early stages, with much of the focus on invasive video and gamification concepts (i.e., operators can earn badges as they advance to higher levels in the training process), but the technology is gaining momentum in the DC. We’re folding these concepts into our WMS training, knowing that VR will really take the experience to a whole new level and even work its way into the material handling training process over time.
Readapting on the Fly with Artificial Intelligence
An area of computer science that emphasizes the creation of intelligent machines that work and react like humans, artificial intelligence (AI) is helping companies readapt and reconfigure their warehouses in new and innovative ways. Schenker is working on an application right now, for example, that will allow a WMS to learn about slotting and then reconfigure the DC pickslot locations using an AI engine. And at our UC Irvine IT office, a team of interns are working on a number of projects focused on incorporating AI onto our current capabilities—right down to simple processes like hooking a voice-command utility like Alexa into our WMS applications. Ask a question like, “Alexa, what’s my inventory position right now on XYZ?” for instance, and you’ll get all of the information you need to make important decisions. Most of these activities are in the experimental phase, but they will all go a long way in improving the largely manual processes that many warehouses have used traditionally.
As warehouses and DCs continue to play an increasingly critical role in supply chain management and distribution, these technologies will continue to shape the organizational vision of the “warehouse of the future.” The advancement and emergence of new warehousing solutions such as robotics and augmented reality have led logistics providers to test run and evaluate these solutions in the warehouse and DC with potential to see greater deployments in the future.