Drones, intelligent conveyors, and racking systems that rise 40’ into the darkness. No, it’s not science fiction, it’s the future of warehouses and distribution centers. Warehouse and distribution center technology is evolving rapidly, and much of this is driven by the challenges facing warehouse and DC operators.
There has always been pressure to increase speed, throughput, and efficiency in warehouse and DC operations, but that isn’t all the industry is wrestling with. Current challenges include:
- Labor shortages – High turnover and fierce competition for qualified workers is driving up recruitment and training costs.
- Increasing consumer expectations – According to Statista, global online sales are expected to exceed $5.5 trillion in 2022. With the increased use of online shopping, there is also an increasing demand for fast (next day) product delivery. Facilities must meet these demands without sacrificing safety or efficiency.
- Outdated fulfillment and returns strategies – The modern DC needs to pivot from its classic distribution model to an omni-channel model with the agility to pick case packs, fill retail store orders, pick and pack single consumer orders, and process customer returns and/or product refurbishments.
- Space – According to Cushman & Wakefield, e-commerce-related warehouses and DCs will account for 35-40% of the total 800k-850k sqft of industrial space demand between 2022-2023. Because of high demand, DCs will need to build up instead of out, utilizing all available space within their footprint.
Warehouse Technology Trends
Challenges are opportunities for innovative businesses, and a host of technologies are emerging to simplify, speed up, automate, and optimize warehouse operations. Chief among these are:
- “Smart” devices
- Higher reach shelving and equipment
- Improved picking technology
- Enhanced software
- Energy efficiency
Robotics continues to gain prominence in warehouses and DCs. The exponential growth of e-commerce and labor shortages have driven the demand for solutions to these facilities to meet consumer demands.
GVs (automated guided vehicles) and AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) have traditionally moved totes and pallets through warehouses, putting incoming products away and bringing items out for picking or, had lifting/stacking ability so they could reach to higher storage locations. While AGVs and AMRs still have these capabilities, new innovations include AI (artificial intelligence), machine vision and manipulation capabilities that allow for robotic picking and placing of products.
While cobots (collaborative robots) have been around for nearly two decades, they are becoming more commonplace in warehouses and DCs. Cobots share workspaces with humans and are intended to protect workers from occupational injuries, assist in heavy lifting, and provide efficiencies that speed processes and minimize costs, such as finding items for workers to pick. Cobots also make it easier to keep up with seasonal spikes in warehouse traffic despite labor shortages.
Racking systems themselves are becoming robotic too. These robotic automated storage and retrieval (ASR) systems need less gangway space and maximize square footage more efficiently than ever.
Drones have also been implemented for use in automated inventory counts. Looking ahead, developers are developing ways to use warehouse drones for the rapid pickingof smaller, lighter items.
One of the most exciting warehouse technology trends is how the Internet of Things (IoT) is finding its way into warehouse equipment of all types. This fusion of compact, inexpensive sensors and low-cost computing power with wireless communications opens up a host of opportunities for smart devices, (i.e. those that can communicate details of their status, location, temperature, loads, etc.). Applications include:
- Totes that can report their fill level and/or location
- Pallets that log time-at-temperature (ideal for cold chain applications)
- Conveyors that communicate with other warehouse equipment (machine-to-machine or M2M communication)
Higher Reach Shelving and Equipment
Taller warehouses on smaller footprints need lifting, racking, stacking, and conveyor equipment that can reach 40’ or higher versus the traditional 20’ limit. While many assume this means more costly ASRs and stackers, there is another option. A vertical reciprocating conveyor (VRC) may be less expensive, less space-consuming, and possibly a more efficient way of accessing taller racking, pick modules, mezzanines, and multiple floor levels, in virtually any type of warehouse or DC environment.
Improved Picking Technology
Order picking is a complex task requiring speed and dexterity. Automated solutions are emerging but for many warehouse and DC operators simply improving manual picking can yield a quick return. Pick-to-light and pick-to-voice systems use clear visual and/or audible signals to guide pickers in their work. These are proven to increase pick rates while reducing error frequency.
Many warehouse operators have yet to adopt a Warehouse Management System (WMS) that can accommodate their current needs. Often, a system that performed well a few years ago is now struggling to handle increased SKUs, smaller quantity orders, and a higher level of returns.
WMS software developers are attuned to what operators need for higher efficiency and space utilization. Some offer cloud solutions that provide scalability while avoiding the expense of server hardware. Many are even promoting the use of blockchain technology for higher levels of traceability, something that’s of particular interest in pharmaceuticals.
Increasing costs for heating, cooling, lighting and overall facility energy consumption have added to your bottom line. Some of the easiest ways to cut overall energy consumption are:
- Invest in automated equipment that features automatic shut-off or built in smart settings that signal when equipment is consuming more energy than normal
- Invest in equipment / facility maintenance. Equipment that is maintained per manufacturer’s schedule will typically remain more energy efficient than equipment that has been neglected
- Lighting is most likely the largest consumer of your facility’s energy. Replace outdated lighting systems with energy-efficient LED solutions and utilize sensor-based lighting that automatically turns lights on and off based on activity
- Upgrade the insulation and weatherstripping in all dock areas and around doors and windows.
- Create temperature zones! If your warehouse or DC houses products requiring temperature control, use zoned refrigeration and internet-based HVAC systems that allow for 24/7, remote temperature control of each zone.
- Take the load off your HVAC system by using an HVLS fan to circulate air for optimal worker comfort and energy savings. HVLS or high volume low speed fans, regulate the flow of air to keep workers cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter
Consider Both New and Proven Warehouse Technology Solutions
Developers of warehouse equipment understand the pressures operators are under and are developing new and improved solutions. Today’s main warehouse technology trends include robotic automation, IoT applications, smarter software, picking improvements, energy efficiency, and equipment that can meet the demands of taller buildings.
Increased height poses a host of challenges. These include structural, safety, and increased demands on lighting and HVAC, with the biggest challenge being how to safely and efficiently raise and lower materials.
Material lifts, or VRCs, offer a safe, economical, reliable, and space-efficient answer. VRCs have been proven to increase operational safety and efficiency in a vast array of material handling applications, including warehousing.
PFlow engineers and manufactures both hydraulic and mechanical VRCs for the safe and efficient lifting of materials. No matter the size, weight or type of material lifting application, PFlow can create a solution. Learn more by clicking below.