6 Tech Advances Changing the Face of Modern Warehouses
Warehousing has been one of the last industries to see major change wrought by 21st century technology. As so many of the adjacent technologies in eCommerce, manufacturing and marketing have been completely transformed, the warehousing industry has often stayed relatively technologically steady. For those who aren’t ready to make an Amazon-level investment in automation, the tools of the warehouse trade haven’t been tremendously different.
But that’s changing, and it’s changing quickly. Today’s warehouse is an increasingly interconnected and technology-driven place. You’ll find all kinds of fascinating tech at work, from incremental improvements in space design to total reorganizations driven by robotics and new inventory systems. With the explosion in demand for fast, efficient warehouse services, warehouses today need the latest technologies to help them keep up with the workload—and these six technologies are leading the way.
1. Warehouse Management Systems
A Warehouse Management System (WMS) is the 21st century way to manage a variety of vital warehouse tasks through a single portal. These software products typically handle functions such as:
- Inventory Management
- Reports and Data
- Inbound and Outbound Freight
- Bills of Lading
- Labor Management
Many of today’s most popular WMS products are cloud-based and allow users to access them anywhere and anytime. This cloud architecture also allows businesses that might not be able to afford an on-premises software deployment to get access to the game-changing technology of a WMS, and it makes more resources available for other tasks.
Finally, one of the greatest things about WMS software is its near-universal applicability. While some technologies on this list are specialized and effective only in certain types of warehouses, these software products can benefit nearly any warehouse that implements them correctly.
2. Mobile Devices
Often integrated with warehouse management software, mobile devices are some of the most important new tools in warehouse management. A smartphone or tablet can be a state-of-the-art mobile command center for a warehouse employee, allowing them to track and catalog inventory with the press of a button. Businesses can make receiving less of a headache by using on-the-go tracking for putaway, and it can also be tremendously helpful to help new employees learn their way around the warehouse. Where warehouse data once stayed on a computer, it’s now roaming the floor with employees, and that can translate to more efficient practices and happier, more productive employees.
3. Robotics and Cobotics
Robotics are one of the most visible and high-profile new warehouse technologies. Their implementation by industry leaders like Amazon has shown the world how the fully-automated warehouse of the future might look. But their applications are actually much more widespread than that, with many warehouses implementing smaller-scale (but no less innovative) robotics solutions.
You can see this trend at work in the many warehouses that now have robots sorting parts, taking inventory or assisting workers with taking packages off a line. That collaborative spirit is a big theme in the current generation of robotics—so much that some have coined the term “cobotics” for it! Any repetitive, time-consuming tasks that waste employees’ time and attention is a great candidate for automation, whether by robot or cobot, and it’s that elimination of unnecessary person-hours that’s driving the widespread adoption of robotics.
4. Voice Tasking
The classic image of a warehouse employee often shows someone with a clipboard in hand, carefully checking the serial numbers on their picks. The problem with that system is that it occupies a worker’s eyes and hands, costing them valuable time and efficiency. Voice tasking is a big step forward. It delivers voice commands into an employee’s earpiece and directs them verbally to their next pick.
Voice tasking has actually existed for several decades, but new advances in mobile technology have made it much more efficient and worthwhile. The program is now usually delivered via an app—much simpler than the standalone voice tasking systems of the past, not to mention much more cost-effective. This technology is also great for reducing the learning curve for new employees, giving them their own personal guide to the ins and outs of the warehouse.
5. Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light
These two technologies form a combined system of order fulfillment optimization that helps warehouse employees greatly increase the speed of their daily tasks, particularly when doing piece picking. The design is easy to understand: Every SKU’s slot has a small plastic electronics enclosure with a light-up button attached. These buttons light up to correspond to a picker’s next destination. A small digital screen viewed through a cutout in the enclosure also displays the rack level and bin number if necessary.
Pick-to-light and put-to-light are excellent for improving accuracy, since the light (when combined with numerical readouts) is typically able to eliminate confusion about which SKU to pick. They’re also highly efficient, since most systems are designed as zone-pick systems. Each picker has responsibility for picks in one zone, with the PTL system directing them to their next without time wasted walking across the warehouse. It’s the kind of ingeniously simple and effective system that works wonders for many warehouses.
6. Employee-Focused Technology and Design
Warehouse work can be taxing on an employee’s physical and mental well-being. Jobs often involve long hours, repetitive tasks and a relentless need for productivity. That’s why new employee-focused strategies are increasing in popularity. Whether it’s implementing technology to monitor the environment or the employee’s well-being, technology is helping to put the focus back on the worker in many ways:
- Sensors that monitor air quality for contaminants.
- Wearable fitness trackers that can alert employees.
- Designing shelves to be at a more comfortable height for most employees to work at.
- More natural light sources in warehouses.
These changes might seem small, but they can create a big difference in the happiness and well-being of employees. And in an increasingly tight labor market, that employee retention can be a life-saver.
These six trends are the new face of warehouse technology, and they’re proving to be essential in keeping up with the performance that the 21st century economy demands from a well-run warehouse. Not all are appropriate for every warehouse—but each has its own role to play in the new logistics and fulfillment landscape. As eCommerce and global supply chains continue to grow, warehouse technology is kicking into high gear, and its advances promise a new era of performance and integration.