(Editor’s Note: This is an online-only article attributed to the February/March 2018 issue.)
The warehouse of 2017 is vastly different from the 20th century warehouse. In the past, warehouses were designed to function solely as storage structures that housed products in an organized and secure location. The function of today’s warehouse is no longer solely about housing products. Those currently managing warehouses must focus on optimizing their assets: people, products, and facilities. With the advancement of conveyor belts, automated guided vehicles, electronic data interchange, automated storage and retrieval systems, slotting optimization and other warehouse management system components, the focus is shifting from storing boxes to managing data. Additionally, robotics and process automation has resulted in improved product management, faster product movement, and less labor-intensive picking and packaging operations. The 21st century warehouse is a lean, data driven autonomous hub aimed at increasing productivity and impacting the speed of the entire supply chain. There are five technological innovations that will significantly impact the warehouse of the future: 1) the Internet of Things (IoT), 2) blockchain, 3) 3D printing, 4) virtual reality (VR), and 5) augmented reality (AR).
The Internet of Things
The advent of the IoT has already tremendously impacted warehouse operations. IoT in the warehouse involves machines that collect and communicate valuable data, which can then be used to glean insights about areas for improvement. From wearables on workers to sensors on smart equipment, this internet-driven technology is fundamentally changing how value-add processes are defined in the warehouse. One of the byproducts of all these devices is a data-rich environment that lends itself to machine learning and predictive analytics. For example, robots will be able to predict the best configuration based on retrieval patterns. They will “learn” and provide complex data analysis to enhance efficiency. A role that IoT currently plays at food service supplier Golden State Foods is managing the fleet to improve routings, monitor food quality, and optimize warehouse assets through dynamic scheduling of vehicles.
Due to the capabilities of IoT, the use of robots in warehousing will evolve into a wider range of applications. It’s predicted that robots will co-exist with workers and augment tasks that may be a safety concern today. For example, Golden State Foods still has unused space in its warehouses because it wants to limit the exposure to hard-to-reach places. With robots assisting with product placement and retrieval, the company can alleviate these concerns and ensure the use of all available locations.
IoT will continue to create opportunities for “smart warehouses,” connecting assets while providing visibility to all entities in the supply chain network. One noteworthy technology that goes hand-in-hand with IoT is artificial intelligence (AI). Though AI is still in its earliest stages, it has the potential to provide sophisticated predictive analytics that would surpass traditional forecasting models.
Blockchain is an emerging technology that provides a vision of a future where end-to-end traceability is possible in a matter of seconds from farm to fork. Blockchain is a cloud-based software solution that links the transactions from business entities within a network in an immutable and secure manner. The technology uses code or “smart contracts” to automate the business rules governing business network interactions. Golden State Foods is currently collaborating with IBM and other food industry leaders to explore how blockchain can improve the way to track, trace, and monitor food products. The promise of blockchain brings in a new era for secure information management, which is especially important in the food industry since there is no compromise when it comes to food safety. Timely information can save lives in the event of a recall and this level of traceability can even help prevent recalls in the first place.
Another technology that will have a key role in the facility of the future is 3D printing. One of the immediate applications is in warehouse spare parts management. Spare parts management could be as simple as 3D printed replacements for screws, nuts, and bolts that would save facilities both time and money. Another application for 3D printing technology lies in the manufacturing process. Amazon has submitted a patent to create 3D printed products in a truck while in route to the product’s final destination. This process would allow businesses to save money in various facets of the supply chain. 3D printing’s potential is currently untapped due to the significant capital investment required upfront. However, when this technology becomes cost-effective, it will become commonplace for customers to receive items that were not created until they ordered them that day.
Augmented and Virtual Reality
AR will be an excellent tool in the future for training as well as for designing and planning new facility layouts. AR, which creates an enhanced visual of an already existing image, would allow you to take a facility layout and “walk” through it to see clearances, travel paths, and potential issues. It will also allow management teams to make immediate layout changes without relying on static blueprints.