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Sky’s the Limit for Tech Innovations in Warehousing

We’ve arrived at 2017.  Though I don’t recall seeing any technological predictions anchored on this particular year, we can look at what we’re supposed to be working toward with respect to the predictions for 2020 and what has come to light last year.  From that perspective, you can see that warehousing tech is a really hot area right now.

With respect to that 2020 benchmark, last year Zebra Technologies conducted Warehouse Vision Study, that compared what IT and operations warehouse professionals were doing in 2015 to their expectations for those same areas in 2020.  All indicators point to a need to be more agile driving further investment in technology to meet demand for shorter delivery times.

Some of the key findings include:

  • Half of the surveyed IT and operations decision makers planned to move to a more modern, full-featured warehouse management system in 2015 while 75% of them plan this in 2020 to help manage the increased locations and items shipped.
  • 51% of those surveyed expected increased investment in real-time location systems that track inventory and assets throughout the warehouse last year, but this number escalates to 76% of respondents in 2020.
  • Executives anticipate an increase in inbound items that will be bar coded in the next five years, from 66% of survey respondents in 2015 to 82% in 2020.
  • By 2020, respondents cited plans to make investments in the following processes and tools: increasing volume of items shipped (76%), equipping staff with technology (73%), bar code scanning (68%), tablets (66%) and Internet of Things (62%).

The study also found that a significant increase in the plans for investment in cloud/SaaS for warehouse management. During 2015 52.3% were using that technology, but the percentage jumps to 72.7% for anticipated use in 2020. Certainly to arrive at that point, companies need to have begun to move in that direction in 2016, and we should see that trend continue in 2017.

Though clouds refer to the computer kind, there now is the possibility of moving warehousing to actual cloud in the sky. That’s a possibility that Amazon seems to be considering based on the patent for an “airborne fulfilment center utilizing unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery”  that  that came to light this past December. The airborne fulfillment center (AFC) based on an unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) is no mere drone. It is something much larger like the LCA60T flying whale airship discussed here, though with a variety of options.

Image courtesy: Flying Whales

Image courtesy: Flying Whales

According to the abstract of the patent:

For example, the AFC may be an airship that remains at a high altitude (e.g., 45,000 feet) and UAVs with ordered items may be deployed from the AFC to deliver ordered items to user designated delivery locations. As the UAVs descend, they can navigate horizontally toward a user specified delivery location using little to no power, other than to stabilize the UAV and/or guide the direction of descent. Shuttles (smaller airships) may be used to replenish the AFC with inventory, UAVs, supplies, fuel, etc. Likewise, the shuttles may be utilized to transport workers to and from the AFC.

Down on the ground, one technological innovation that is making a major impact on warehousing is the introduction of robots. Indeed, robotics are at the top of the list for the 2016 MHI Annual Industry Report titled Accelerating Change: How Innovation is driving digital “always-on” supply chains.In Deloitte’s report on the study, it noted that in 2016 robot usage stood at about 35 percent, but it was poised for a dramatic increase: “51% of survey respondents said that robotics and automation have the potential to either create competitive advantage or be a disruptive force in their industry, and 77%  said they will have some impact.” Consequently, the forecast calls for widespread adoption to reach 74% within the next decade.

We’re on track to make a jump in 2017. This is the year marked for the French startup Exotec Solutions to the launch.  Its robots are designed with “no-infrastructure navigation,” which allows them to make their way through warehouses and a “centralized intelligence system” to connect people to the robots.  According to VentureBeat, by cutting down the amount of walking workers would need to do to get to strategic locations, each person’s productivity is expected to increase twofold.

We can only hope that they won’t decide that twice the productivity means only half the labor force is required. If the goal is really to improve, the addition of technology should not replace human labor but complement to achieve a more efficient supply chain.

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