(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.
VR, which is a visual that completely replaces the physical world in front of you, is another tool that will have an essential role in the future facility. By utilizing VR tools to train and improve operator performance, associates can be prepared for events in a safe environment. In addition, learnings can be shared across our network of warehouses in a proactive way.
Road to the Warehouse of the Future
The measured approach seen in the last 10 years will increase exponentially because today’s technological advancements are being accepted at a much quicker pace. Though this rapid pace of change requires companies to innovate quickly, it’s possible with careful planning. It’s also important to remember that every technological advancement requires a paradigm shift—it’s much more than simply a software update or a new piece of machinery for employees to learn.
For instance, before Golden State Foods commit to any type of new technology, it conducts exploration, which involves benchmarking other innovative companies that are successfully implementing new technologies. Some examples include UPS, which is using smart glasses to reduce the amount of labeling on packages; and Walmart, which is piloting warehouse drones for inventory management. Tesla is also using solar and autonomy to drive innovation. Engaging current employees at this earliest stage of exploration puts them in a position to be change agents within the warehouse and provides them with a sense of ownership over these new innovations.
To avoid exhausting budgets with new technologies, it’s best to start small. Golden State Foods focuses on ensuring the technology solves the basic problem before scaling up. It confirms that the minimum viable product delivers quantifiable benefits that can fund itself for the full production roll out. Additionally, I believe that IoT and other emerging technologies don’t have to be expensive or completely revolutionize warehouse operations. Begin to use these technologies to solve simpler problems, such as building control and monitoring systems that reduce energy consumption in light fixtures, HVAC, and other everyday devices. Starting small to capture these large gains and to create a sustainable warehouse can fuel a passion for innovation that leads to greater outcomes.
One of the most important things to note about the warehouse of the future is that the industry is not looking to replace workers with technology—it is looking to enhance them. An example of this is the university developed exoskeleton suits that Golden State Foods is testing in two of its warehouse locations. These “superhuman” suits reduce the forces on the knees, back, and shoulders to support daily warehouse activity, helping to eliminate the soft tissue injuries that can occur in a warehouse environment.
Automation that works to relieve work in unfavorable environments while helping increase productivity efficiencies will be critical for distributors futures. The companies that can find a balance between automation assistance and increased human efficiencies will be the leaders of the future distribution world.
Javaheri is the chief technology officer at Golden State Foods. Reach her at GJavaheri@goldenstatefoods.com.