When the forklift truck was invented in the early 20th century, it ushered in a transformation in the way warehouse inventory is stored and shipped. There have been plenty of other warehousing innovations since then, and there’s plenty more to come.
So what can we expect to see in the warehouse of the future, say five or ten years from now? What we know for sure is that there are some significant emerging trends in society, business and technology that are changing the face of the modern warehouse. If you own or run a warehouse, you owe it to your customers, suppliers and employees to future-proof your warehousing operations.
No-one wants to be left behind.
Here are four trends that are impacting the world of warehousing and shaping the warehouse of the future
The best run warehouses of the future will be those that can make effective use of the data that’s stored in their business systems. Business Intelligence (BI) is about turning data into actionable insights, and Enterprise Resource Planning Solutions are becoming increasingly sophisticated and powerful in their ability to give warehouse operators the information they need to raise productivity, boost process efficiency and reduce operating costs.
The BI generated by from your ERP solution will also help you to deal with problems before they occur, eliminate process weaknesses and forecast changes in customer demand.
Complete visibility across all aspects of a warehouse’s operations is now within reach thanks to modern BI technology. That technology is improving all the time.
Automation and robotics
Warehouse automation technology has improved dramatically in recent years and further advancements are on the horizon. These days it’s not just the big ecommerce players such as Amazon that are mixing human resources with robots, drones and other automation tools – smaller firms are also taking advantage of these technologies.
Robots are getting better and better at performing tasks traditionally carried out by humans. Time-consuming and labour-intensive tasks like packing can now be done safely and reliably by a robot, increasing efficiency and productivity while reducing operational costs over the long term.
Similarly, flying drones can provide a practical alternative to the time-consuming and costly task of manual inventory counting. Rather than get a person to climb racks with a scanner, a drone with a camera attached can do it, flying from shelf to shelf and scanning inventory along the way.
Thanks to improvements in drone technology, image recognition and RFID, flying devices are set to play an ever-expanding role in warehouse operations.
More warehouses, closer by
Thanks largely to the rise and pervasiveness of ecommerce, today’s consumers and businesses have high expectations when it comes to product delivery times. When we place an order we expect it to arrive quickly. But the reality is that this is not always possible.
Increasingly, the solution will be to locate warehouses closer to the customers they serve. Rather than have one central fulfilment centre, many companies in the near future will operate multiple warehouses in urban areas which can accommodate same-day or next-day delivery. For businesses that cannot afford to move in this direction, the answer may be to share warehouse space with other sellers.
Managing product availability is a huge supply chain challenge. Always has been. But with the emergence of 3D printing as a viable industrial tool, many warehouse operators will be able to shrink the gap between manufacturing and distribution.
While 3D printing will suit some types of product categories more than others, in many instances the opportunity is there for the warehouse of the future to operate as both a producer and deliverer of inventory. By being able to create within the warehouse whatever it is that the customer ordered, businesses can reduce the problems of backorders, unsold inventory and excess stock. A 3D printing-equipped warehouse will also be able to increase its number of SKUs without requiring additional physical space. Thanks to 3D printing inventory-on-demand will be a feature of many of the world’s future warehouses.
The bottom line
The world of warehousing is changing rapidly and it would take thousands of words to do more than scrape the surface of what the future is likely to hold. Driverless vehicles, wearable technology and the Internet of Things are also playing their part in creating a future that will bear little resemblance to how warehouses operate today.
The smart warehouse operators will be those who can identify which emerging tools, processes and technologies are worth harnessing, and investing in those that make the most commercial sense.