As e-commerce keeps evolving, so do warehouse operations. Warehouses once served mainly as storage spaces, stocked with surplus inventory that could be delivered to brick-and-mortar stores as needed. Then they began online order fulfillment.

Today, researchers at Arizona State University believe the best warehouses aren’t the ones that can store the most inventory. They’re the ones that can receive and ship product the fastest.
Technology is evolving to make warehouses more nimble; from robots that find packages to software that organizes them to carbonization technology that improves packaging itself. At the same time, warehouses still rely on warehouse workers.

Carriers and shippers striving to keep costs down demand more from these workers. That has created a high-turnover industry that generates reports about poor working conditions every few months. Further, if the U.S. unemployment rate continues to fall, it’s going to be even harder this year for carriers and shippers to meet warehouse staffing needs during the busy 2018 holiday season.

Carriers and shippers need to adapt to changing warehouse technologies to stay relevant, keep products organized, fulfill orders on time and retain healthy, productive employees.

Integrating New Warehouse Technologies

The warehouses of two decades ago were primarily responsible for receiving goods on pallets, processing them and sending them out on pallets again. Today, warehouses have to handle thousands of differently sized and shaped packages. Plus, end customers tend to order parcels one or two at a time, which means warehouses also have to improve their inventory management more than ever.

Many emerging technologies can help address these challenges, upping productivity and making the supply chain more seamless.

First, there’s technology that assists employees. A few years ago, most employees carried digital handsets or clipboards, which assigned them new tasks and asked for confirmation when each task was fulfilled. This remains the norm for many warehouse operations today.

But many companies are starting to replace handsets with headsets and heads-up displays, telling employees where to go via voice commands. Switching from paper to headsets helped Minnesota-based Patterson Logistics Service improve its filing rate by 25%, according to Supply Chain Dive.

Second, there are robots themselves. Some robots stock shelves and retrieve packages, giving employees time off their feet and reducing human error. Others can pull finished products off picking lines and pack them into boxes.

Automation technologies like these require big up-front investments, but they will likely save money in the long run, especially as they begin to fill hard-to-plug holes in the warehouse workforce. It’s similar to the role self-driving cars might play in the trucking industry: they can take on a difficult job, often plagued by labor shortages, and do it without human error.

Related: The Future of Parcel Shipping [on-demand webinar]

Localized Supply Chain Solutions 

Developers built 197 million square feet of new warehouse space in 2017, according to CBRE. In part, that new space is meant to process the millions of additional goods that customers order online every year. But it will also fill historical gaps in the U.S.’s warehouse map.

Before two-day shipping became the norm, warehouses were stationed strategically along truck routes, so packages could travel from region to region with ease. But today, more packages need to cross the final distance from the warehouse to the customer’s doorstep in one day or less.

As same-day ordering gets more popular for groceries and household goods, retailers’ solution is simple: build more warehouses near urban centers.

A 2017 Wall Street Journal article described these facilities as “neighborhood fulfillment centers.” Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told the paper in April 2017 that this network of e-retailers, warehouses and delivery services should be thought of as “infrastructure,” because once built out, it will “function like a utility.”

“Getting goods delivered to one’s home doesn’t eliminate that other part of the human experience—wanting to get out of the house to get fresh air,” Tomer told the newspaper. “People will just exchange it.”

How to Stay Relevant Amid Evolving Technology

Warehousing technology is rapidly evolving. Even if your company is still using paper and clipboards as part of your warehouse management strategy, you can catch up.

To start, if your company manages its own warehouses, make sure you’re keeping careful track of your data. You should know how much you spend on labor and other costs, how quickly packages can travel through the space and how long it takes workers to process each task they receive.

Then, develop a plan to “future-ize” your warehouses. Does app-based technology, that sends employees tasks and keeps track of their fulfillment, make sense for your business? What about warehouse automation?

If you want help designing logistics for your business, contact Reveel. Our team of experts can provide real-time insights to help you collect data, maximize efficiencies and manage trends. They’re experts at identifying opportunities for savings. And if you rely on an outside carrier for fulfillment services, Reveel can help you make sure they’re innovating too.

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