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Warehouse Tech Trends 2019: Automation, Blockchain, Robots

By Ruthie Bowles logiwa-blog-author | Tags: Warehouse Management

47% of companies reported significant benefits in adopting artificial intelligence in the supply chain. Despite all of the technological advancements made every day, many companies that need these agile technologies for their supply chains struggle to adopt them.

In the logistics and supply chain industries, we’ve barely scratched the surface of artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and big data applications.

The Biggest Barrier to Adopting New Technology

In a McKinsey study, 43% of participants stated that “lack of a clear strategy” was their biggest barrier to AI and innovative tech at their organizations. Another issue is the lack of data to make AI and machine learning techniques work.

For these sorts of systems (cloud WMS, automated drones, mobile devices), you must input clean data. Your systems take that data as truth, and you’ll run into problems when you put inaccurate data into a system.

When innovation isn’t built into your overarching business strategy, it can be tough to get buy-in from all of the decision makers (if you have a board or partners to answer too). The value the technology will bring to your company must be clear to everyone, from the top down.

The senior members of your company must be committed, but also the people who will interact with this technology every day: your warehouse employees.

BONUS: Before you read further, download our Warehouse Management Software Whitepaper to see how Logiwa uses real-time data to help you get up to 100% inventory accuracy and execute advanced fulfillment strategies like wave planning.

Where Can You Find the Skilled Employees to Use this Tech?

The second largest obstruction to implementing new technology is qualified employees to operate and use it. The companies most successful at integrating new tech implement a tri-head attack for qualified employees:

  • Retraining current employees

  • Hiring external talent

  • Buying capabilities from tech firms

The first point is critical for maintaining high employee morale. To get that buy-in you need from your employees, you’ll need to assure them that you aren’t trying to replace them with a robot. Offering them an opportunity to further their own career and learn how to use new technology is one of the ways to do that.

Around 60% of Millennials who took part in a Gallup poll reported that opportunities to learn on the job are important to them. Your workforce understands that the world changes. They value continuous learning, and want to make themselves more valuable as employees. If you invest in them, not only do you create in house talent, you’ll foster more employee engagement.

Drones and Other Types of Warehouse Robots

Tech companies initially focused on building out Jeff Bezos’ “Octocopter” concept, which he revealed in 2013.

Supply chain drone concepts have clashed with the Federal Aviation Administration ever since. Drones are a near perfect solution to inventory and equipment in hard to reach places. They can be equipped with RFID, GPS, OCR, and barcode scanning ability. With their speed at reaching hard-to-get to places, they can outperform humans.

Currently, drone development has turned to look inside the warehouses and distribution centers (DC). For warehouses and DC’s that have inventory stacked so high, slow-moving equipment is needed to reach it. But drones equipped with the same equipment could reach these areas much faster than a human.

Drones turn inventory counting into a much simpler task that causes minimal disruptions to warehouse operations.

Automated-Guided Vehicles and Other Flightless Robots

Warehouse order pickers spend about half of their time moving from one location to the next. So robots who can shorten the amount of time warehouse workers move about the warehouse have been in longer development than drones. Costs for these types of equipment have come down, allowing smart robotics to be incorporated in almost every warehouse operation.

There are a few primary types of automated robots:

Goods-to-person robots: These sorts of robots are usually equipped with sensors and machine learning capabilities. They carry carts or bins, allowing them to ferry inventory to waiting people for the last stages of order marshaling. Warehouse tech companies have also developed climbing robots who can traverse great inventory heights. Working in narrow aisles, they also allow for warehouse space optimization.

Driverless forklifts: Forklifts are an integral part of B2B warehouse operations. They allow employees to move heavy inventory that would be impossible to move without equipment. The most advanced driverless forklifts can pick up a pallet, drive to the next location, and deposit the inventory, without human assistance. As they come upon obstacles, their sensors allow them to adjust course.

Inventory Robots: Using these robots, you can conduct inventory counts daily. Counting robots like the TagSurveyor can scan inventory from up to 25 feet away thanks to RFID sensors and scanners. Instead of counting inventory every few months, your warehouse could know it’s inventory counts every day. Not only would your inventory data be more accurate, but it would also discourage inventory theft.

An example of what a robot driven warehouse looks like is located in England. Designed by Ocado Technology, this warehouse has been dubbed “The Hive”. This warehouse can support more than 1,000 robots who can process 65,000 orders per week.

The efficiency of this operation is a bit difficult to describe, so you should watch the short video below.

Blockchain in Your Supply Chain

Blockchain simply put is:

“Blockchain is a distributed database that holds records of digital data or events in a way that makes them tamper-resistant. While many users may access, inspect, or add to the data, they can’t change or delete it. The original information stays put, leaving a permanent and public information trail, or chain, of transactions.” Blockchain, Explained from Investopedia

Blockchain takes a distributed approach to record-keeping, which enhances the security of the system. Information about every transaction is stored on all of the computers in the network.

What you end up with is a record system that is stored on all of the computers in the network. In order for a hacker to change transaction data on one record, they would have to hack into all of the computers in a blockchain network, and change the information there as well. This level of effort discourages dishonest record keeping and keeps all network participants accountable.

Blockchain can be applied throughout your supply chain:

  • Recording the transfer of inventory and equipment assets

  • Sharing manufacturing information with suppliers and vendors

  • Tracking receipts, shipment notifications, and purchase orders

  • Connecting goods to barcodes, digital tags, and serial numbers

Better Warehouse Performance = Higher Profit Margins: Logiwa syncs accurate data across your entire interface so the inventory numbers you see on your dashboard are what your employees see on their devices. Learn how Logiwa uses real-time data to help you get up to 100% inventory accuracy and 2.5x shipments.

The increased transparency makes it easier for companies within a single supply chain to work together securely while transferring data across the Internet.

Walmart and IBM partnered together to create a transparent food supply chain using IBM’s blockchain network. They envision this technology will allow them to pinpoint affected food during a food scare in minutes, as opposed to days. During a food scare, Walmart’s current practice is to pull all of the food items until a source is identified. This ability will be revolutionary if it can be made into reality.

Mobile Tech for Easier and More Accurate Warehouse Ops

You might already have mobile devices in your warehouse, but each type of technology is appropriate for different scenarios.

Smartphones and Tablets

Phones and tablets can make inputting and receiving information in the warehouse easy. Especially if you have a warehouse management software that will push items like pick lists to warehouse employees. Your employees are comfortable with their smartphones and tablets, so training is kept to the actual application versus the device + the application.

Phones and tablets aren’t optimized for the rough and tumble environment that a warehouse often has. So while this can be a relatively cheap equipment investment that makes your warehouse more efficient, you should purchase some add ons:

  • Tough phone cases that protect devices if dropped

  • Screen protectors that help prevent scratches and cracks

With these two accessories for your phones and tablets, you’ll increase their longevity and your ROI.

Handheld Devices

When you think about other types of handheld devices in a warehouse, you probably think of barcode scanners. However, warehouse handheld devices can do much more than that nowadays. Many come equipped with RFID scanners, cameras, touchscreens, and WiFi to connect with other tech in your warehouse.

Handheld devices are usually ergonomically designed, which can help reduce the number of injuries your workers experience. Anyone who repeatedly executes an action day in and day out is at risk for musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) In 2013, MSDs accounted for 33% of all workplace injuries. Warehouse employees took second place for the highest number of MSDs.

They can’t handle the more complex operations of a tablet or smartphone, but they can still send and receive data related to order fulfillment and delivery tracking.

Pick-to-Voice Systems

Pick-to-light systems have been out for some years now, but the latest advancement for picking (besides robots) is voice technology. Pick-to-voice systems are another way for warehouses to reduce waste since they won’t need a pen and paper. Unlike handheld devices, employees have both hands free, since they receive and send information with a hands free headset.

Voice is making a resurgence in popularity due to advancements in technology, such as in the system Vitech offers. They boast that their voice recognition software can reduce background noise by as much as 50%, lowering the number of sound interpretations users experience.

Cloud-Based Warehouse Management Software

Cloud-based warehouse management software (WMS) is the foundation for making the most of the efficiencies offered by other technologies. With automated data going in and coming out, you need a system that can help you fully realize the potential of your warehouse.

We know what you’re thinking. This isn’t necessarily new technology. However, the top platforms for this service constantly innovate to keep pace with other developments in the supply chain space. So you’ll see advancements in the integrations these platforms can develop, and the new capabilities they incorporate in order to provide a complete warehouse management solution.

With the right WMS, you could see dramatic increases in warehouse productivity, and even increase order picking productivity by 35%.

The benefits of adopting top-of-the-line cloud warehouse software include:

  • Saves time and money within your operations by automating previously manual functions

  • Centralizing information input and output helps minimize human errors

  • More precise inventory control, giving you a better handle on your company’s largest asset

  • Scales with your business, giving you more resources as you need them

  • Integrations with your scanning and accounting systems

While there are major inventory benefits to a WMS, those benefits are just the beginning if you pick a system that can integrate with other technology and equipment in your warehouse. It becomes a finely tuned instrument that brings inventory in and sends orders out.

Use These Warehouse Technology Trends to Plan a Profitable Future for Your Business

The agile and lean supply chain of the future is showing up today. You likely can’t afford to do everything at once, but now is a great time to build the foundation for an innovative warehouse. Schedule a demo with the Logiwa team today, and see what the most integrated WMS can do for your business.

Ruthie Bowles

Written by Ruthie Bowles

Ruthie is a content marketing consultant for Logiwa. Her specialties include small business development and inventory management.