Over the past 30 years, technology has transformed warehouse operations, making them more efficient as well as reducing the number of required workers.
And, given that technology advances at an exponential rate, warehouse managers may find it difficult to imagine what the warehouses of the future will look like.
One can be sure that Industry 4.0 will have a big part to play: IoT and 5G technology will not only increase connectivity within a warehouse, but they will also facilitate decision making and improve tracking of inventory.
Additionally, automation will play a more significant role over the next few years, one that will dwarf its role so far.
Rather than thinking about what technologies will be game-changers, let’s look at how today’s disruptive technology will affect tomorrow’s warehouses.
After all, almost all new technology will find its way into a warehouse.
How logistics companies prepare for this change can make all the difference; it’s either getting a leg-up on the competition at one end of the spectrum or waiting to be devoured by the merciless jaws of the market at the other end of the spectrum.
We aren’t just talking about the proliferation of robots within the warehouse because that’s a given. We are also looking at the widespread use of numerous devices and gadgets, including advanced sensors, drones, and so much more.
This aggressive wave of technological invasion will be possible thanks to advances in IoT, 5G internet, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence.
Let’s look at one specific type of device for the sake of this conversation: wearable technology.
Several warehouses have begun using wearable devices, but they are only scratching the surface. They have voice control headsets, smartwatches, and even smart glasses in some cases.
However, it won’t be long before warehouses rely heavily on AR and VR technology, and the headsets and smart technology used currently will pale in comparison with the versions that will show up in a few years.
Something as simple as a smartwatch can not only let warehouse managers know where all the employees are at all times, but it can also monitor their actions, tracking their efficiency and counting the number of steps required to finish a certain task.
Moreover, smart glasses can enable warehouse operators to get rid of most of the paperwork involved in warehouse management.
Whereas smartwatches can monitor an employee’s vitals, making sure that they aren’t over-exerting themselves, smart glasses, when coupled with pick-by-vision technology, can help operators work hands-free and notify them of any impending danger.
Smart glasses can even tell operators which zones should be closed off-limits due to hazardous conditions.
Better and faster communication
Today’s warehouse operators can communicate with each other through their headsets, but tomorrow’s warehouse operators will be able to have impromptu video conferences, thanks to smart glasses.
This will make tackling unexpected problems much faster and will increase asset uptime while reducing support costs.
Seeing as technology will populate warehouses more than ever over the next decade, advanced batteries need to be developed to keep up with this change and to support this technological shift. The batteries of the future need to be smaller, last longer, and be more efficient overall.
This advancement in battery technology is already happening as we are speaking. For instance, there are two different types of batteries released by Tesla that can draw energy from the power grid as well as from a renewable energy source such as solar energy.
Another advancement in batteries involves the recent developments in lithium-ion power cells, Li-ion for short. When put inside a truck, Li-ion batteries have proven to be more efficient than the average lead-acid battery.
For one thing, the Li-ion battery can use more than 90 percent of its charge to power the truck, reducing the overall downtime of each vehicle. Li-ion can also keep working for up to 10 years before it needs to be replaced.
It is for these reasons that the European company Linde Material Handling decided to update several of their trucks with Li-ion batteries.
Batteries that last longer will not only be more reliable but will also ensure that the technology that automates the warehouse’s processes doesn’t stop functioning all of a sudden.
Additionally, when batteries can get their energy from both the local grid and renewable sources, the cut in energy costs can help offset the required initial outlay to automate the processes in the first place.
Greater flexibility in the location of the warehouse
When building a warehouse, logistics companies have to take a lot of variables into consideration, such as the products being shipped, the surrounding weather, the surrounding infrastructure, and the capabilities of the local energy grid.
However, with batteries that can get their energy from the sun, logistics companies have a little more freedom as they won’t be constrained by the capabilities of the local energy grid.
One of the biggest issues warehouse managers have always faced is the optimization of each square inch of land.
It has forced logistics companies to maximize vertical space, to incorporate slotting optimization technology (including modern warehouse management system or WMS), and to get higher and higher lift trucks.
This need for space optimization is all the more apparent in urban areas where building vertically is much cheaper than building horizontally, which is why some trucks have a reach of up to 10 levels.
To begin with, the construction is bound to get craftier.
Logistics companies are likely to turn to single-envelope technology as opposed to more traditional methods. The idea is that composite panels can increase energy efficiency, durability, and airtightness, all of which are integral for cold storage facilities.
Moreover, new technological changes in construction methods enable logistics companies to build warehouses faster for cheaper.
An excellent case in point is how ISD Solutions, one of the leading specialists in the UK when it comes to cold storage design and construction, were able to build a facility over 36,000 square meters while reducing both construction time and costs by 20 percent.
In addition to costing less and taking up less time, ISD’s storage facility was built using the composite panels we mentioned earlier, making them more energy-efficient and less harmful to the surrounding environment thanks to a lower carbon footprint.
The previous decade has witnessed an immense rise in the amount of data we collect, analyze, and pull insights from; in fact, Glassdoor marked data scientist as the highest paying job in 2016.
This is possible thanks to marvelous advances in technology, including an increase in computing power and a rise in the accuracy of sensors that collect real-world data and feed it into our models.
Several industries have benefited from the far-reaching applications of data science, and warehouse management is no exception.
Managers already rely on numerous metrics to gauge the efficacy of their operations, but, at the current rate, technology is advancing, it won’t be long before new metrics pop-up and new types of data are collected.
For instance, when monitoring the performance of employees, most companies already have several KPIs in place.
However, with wearable technology, logistics companies could look at the number of steps taken as a new metric. Or, they could measure efficiency by comparing the time each employee takes to finish a task and compare it to the theoretical optimal time.
And, based on the new KPIs that will emerge over the next few years, warehouse managers may provide fitting incentives.
Another area where big data and data science have been making changes already is Electronic Data Interchange technology, EDI for short, which enables different computer systems to share documents in the same format.
EDI has proven popular, specifically when integrated into a functioning WMS, and has been used for purchase orders, shipping orders, inventory advice, and so much more.
The main benefit of EDI technology is that it streamlines the transfer of information from one business partner to another, regardless of the computer system each one has in place.
One more area where data collection and science will play a big role is establishing an effective telematics system, something that can play a vital role in predictive maintenance. A robust telematics system will monitor the operations of the equipment in the warehouse during real-time.
Accordingly, rather than scheduling regular maintenance, warehouse managers will know when their trucks will need to be serviced based on actual data. Moreover, any inefficiency can be uncovered long before it snowballs into a serious problem.
Throughout this article, we’ve tried to take a comprehensive look at what the warehouses of tomorrow might look like based on the technology being developed today.
We first saw that warehouses will become flooded with new gadgets and equipment, and to remain operational, these gadgets require better and more efficient batteries than the ones we have today.
We then realized that these gadgets would not only change the way we build warehouses but will also change the way we define efficiency thanks to all the data they will generate.
Jen McKenzie is an independent business consultant from New York. She writes extensively on business, education and human resource topics. When Jennifer is not at her desk working, you can usually find her hiking or taking a road trip with her two dogs. You can reach Jennifer @jenmcknzie
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