The Future of Warehousing

Anjali Choudhary

25th Jan, 2023

The best way to predict the future is to create it 

This quote was said decades ago by Peter Drucker, the celebrated Austrian-American management consultant who laid the foundation of modern business corporations. Needless to mention, the quote holds true in today’s context more than ever. Ground-breaking innovations are constantly elevating consumers’ expectations, and if not ‘prediction’, but an ‘estimation’ of the future keeps a business ahead of the curve.  

While this is the growth reasoning for keeping an eye to the future; if done correctly, pre-emptive measures act as a cushion for your business to survive any troughs and crests in the supply chain ecosystem.  

The past few years riddled with frequent supply chain disruptions has taught the world about the importance of an agile and resilient supply chain. As a result, discussions about the future of supply chains and warehousing have come to the fore.  

Businesses are looking at warehousing technologies which can help them establish ‘Lights Out’ or ‘Dark Warehouses’, i.e., having autonomous operations without any human intervention at all. With this changing trend, it is plausible to assume that businesses which stay ahead of any similar challenges will experience multi-fold growth, while others will expose themselves to risks during the turbulent times. 

This article will discuss some key trends and innovations which are likely to shape a resilient future for warehousing. 

Human Robot Collaboration 

With the evolution of advanced automation technologies, humans and machines will closely work together for all warehouse operations. This is not entirely driven by the need for more efficient warehousing operations, but also by workforce issues faced by the world in recent times. The ongoing global great resignation, ageing population is several parts of the world, along with times of self-isolation, have all pointed towards the need for human engagement in warehouse functions which are mentally stimulating, ergonomically suitable, and can be performed remotely. Also, there is also a rising concern for safety as companies begin to stack pallets high up on the shelves. 

With the number of warehouses adopting robotics and automation every single year, robots will perform most of the heavy lifting in warehouses. Humans thereafter shall be limited to performing more supervisory, technical, or analytical tasks, which are complex and mentally stimulating.  

Present day automated warehouses have respective dedicated areas for human and robot movements. However, very soon a heterogeneous fleet of humans and robots shall be guided by a common software platform in the same space to collaborate with each other, without causing any interruption or safety concerns. For example, humans equipped with Augmented Reality (AR) devices shall be guided via the most optimal path to perform warehouse operations and troubleshooting any robot or system. Slowly the world is going to move towards more autonomous operations where human engagement on the warehouse floor shall be limited. 

 5G and Edge Computing 

Latency, limited bandwidth, network interruptions, and incapability to process rising data volumes, can cause bottlenecks for warehouse processes; and with the number of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) devices on the rise, the amount of data is only going to grow. To address these issues, warehouse automation is likely to reap the benefits of 5G network combined with Edge Computing architecture. 

5G is the latest high speed and ultra-low latency network, which is expected to boost several technologies from Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality (AR) to Virtual Reality (VR), and more. As opposed to cloud-based and centralized data servers, Edge Computing architecture enables data storage and computing at a location closer to the data source. When combined with a network like 5G, vast amounts of data can be transmitted and computed almost instantaneously, ensuring real-time tracking and decision-making throughout warehouse operations. With real-time data, businesses can boost system maintenance, and provide better customer experience. As a result, any blind spots or down time shall be eliminated, therefore avoiding any loss of revenue. 

5G more particularly boosts the adoption of flexible forms of automation and lays a new paradigm for Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). In future, we are likely to see AMRs making some of the decision-making themselves, such as obstacle avoidance, path planning, navigation, and functional safety. On the other hand, other tasks can be offloaded for the edge server, such as fleet management and analytics, task allocation, etc. With this distribution of workload, it is believed that businesses will be able to derive the highest efficiencies and better consumer satisfaction. Better customer experience in a highly competitive environment, is likely to determine the future of businesses, as result not just increasing margins, but also driving revenues. 

Newer supply chain paradigms like MFCs and NFCs 

To tackle intense market competition and rising consumer expectations, businesses have taken their warehouses closer to the customers with Micro-Fulfilment Centres (MFCs) and Nano-Fulfilment Centres (NFCs).  

MFCs and NFCs are strategically located small-scale warehouses, which can quickly deliver products to customers. Traditional fulfilment from the mother-hub, is time-consuming and adds to the logistics costs of businesses. 

It is becoming an increasing trend to have MFCs and NFCs which are equipped with fully automated automation systems where companies can pick, pack and ship orders within few hours. AMRs which can quickly move products, and intelligent software which can predict consumer behaviour, form the backbone of these fulfilment centres. MFCs and NFCs occupy a very small floor space, and it is not unusual to find them in existing stores or small warehouses situated in a densely populated area. A network of MFCs and NFCs can give businesses a competitive edge in their industry.  

Autonomous Operations driving Commercial Growth through Supply Chains 

It is possible that Robotic Process Automation (RPA) may reach its saturation in a couple of years. Businesses have already made large capital expenditures into implementation of ERPs and automation of repetitive tasks, and this has been crucial in reducing their overheads and deriving better margins. However, the future is likely to witness more intelligent warehouse automation which will be capable of autonomous operations, ensuring that automation initiatives are directly linked to commercial goals.  

In a warehouse with autonomous operations, all processes like inwarding, storage, picking, sorting, packing, and dispatch are performed through Robots and other automated systems without any human intervention (Lights Out/Dark Warehouses). Most warehouses around the world have implemented some form of automation, and therefore will be looking for ‘interoperable automation systems’, where they don’t have to scrap their existing automation. In interoperable automation systems, robots, other automation systems, and software platforms, irrespective of their developer, seamlessly communicate with each other to execute warehouse operations. This means automation system providers will have to offer more hardware-agnostic software and software-agnostic hardware.  

With interoperability, warehouses will have increased level of safety, information traceability leading to advanced analytics, and ability to design flexible workflows according to changing business requirements. As a result, there will be no siloed software systems, lesser inefficiencies, lesser operational constraints, and reduced logistics and maintenance cost. 

With the boost that 5G and Edge Computing are likely to bring to Artificial Intelligence (AI), businesses are going to integrate siloed systems in their warehouses, delegate more complex tasks to intelligent automation, and automate tasks in sync with business objectives. The idea is going to be to capture real-time data, generate real-time analytics, and execute real-time decisions completely by robots and other automation systems. 

With continuous improvements in analytics, intelligent software of the warehouses will be able to analyse and predict customer behaviour and needs, therefore driving further profitability. Businesses will be looking at warehousing innovations for commercial growth, rather than only achieving operational efficiencies.  

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