Enhancing the Fulfilment Paradigm at Warehouses

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With the intent to improve productivity, increase order accuracy, speed up cycle times and/or reduce safety incidents, a growing number of companies are exploring the notion of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) in the warehouse, hence shaping the future of logistics with data-driven, intelligent supply chains employing Machine Learning (ML) systems. And, while automation-related job loss remains a top-of-mind issue for companies, only few can argue the merits of integration of social, mobile, analytics and cloud (SMAC) into an environment to benefit from automation and predictive analytics.

Upamanyu Borah

Proliferation of structured and unstructured data generated by mobile devices, wearable technology, connected devices, sensors is helping create new business models considering the huge impact of the advances in information technology enabling companies to put their best foot forward and create a competitive advantage, by increasing productivity and streamlining the fulfilment process.

According to Gartner, supply chain organisations expect the level of machine automation in their supply chain processes to double in the next five year. The top global research firm says, innovative technologies like AI and ML would disrupt existing supply chain operating models significantly in the future—if the global pandemic should teach us anything, it is that we should not resist future evolution to platforms, such as businesses that resisted the transformation to e-commerce and omnichannel chains.

The evolutionary act of AI in the warehouse

Fully automated warehousing is yet to be achieved by many companies, but through the many benefits of AI, they have already been transforming warehouse management.

AI transforms warehouse management by optimising the aspect of logistics. For instance, consider calculating the number of pallets that need to be moved on any given day, how much equipment is required to handle that movement, and the corresponding labour requirement. Such calculations previously relied on variables such as operator skill levels and stock-keeping units (SKUs), but now ML algorithms enable detailed stock movement forecasting and management to fine-tune material handling.

Perhaps the most controversial way in which AI transforms warehouse management is by cutting labour expenses. At the current stage of development, robot assistance impacts existing operations only as an aid to productivity, but AI could—and will—continue to improve machine handling capabilities, with most warehousing jobs in the verge of becoming fully automated by 2030.

“Many companies are using AI to improve their workflows, deliveries, and customer experiences. Ultimately, AI can improve the ability to recommend the best corrective action, and this is especially important where there are large workforces operating in dynamic environments like retail, warehousing, manufacturing, and healthcare facilities,” says Aik Jin Tan, Vertical Solutions Marketing Lead (Manufacturing and Transportation & Logistics) – Asia Pacific at Zebra Technologies.

“Technology trends are accelerating the pace of innovation and improving the economics of automated offerings. Many of these are accelerating the pace of innovation and improving the economics of automated offerings. AI, computer vision, and lower cost edge-computing are all contributing to the ubiquity of robotics-based offerings.”

“In the consumer space, AI has been used to provide natural language interaction with digital assistants such as ‘Alexa’– Amazon’s cloud-based voice service and ‘Siri’– the virtual assistant that forms part of Apple’s devices, both powered by AI. These systems learn over time, not just how to recognise voices more accurately, but to also interpret meaning, context, and personal preferences. This type of learning technology is also prevalent in enterprises.”

“Today, agility matters more than ever and is one of the key challenges for warehouse operators as they need to understand how every fulfilment centre is operating in real-time to be effective and efficient,” says Jin Tan.

Optimising workflows and improving productivity

From changes in shopping behaviour to accelerated growth in e-commerce, warehouses everywhere have been struggling to keep up due to COVID-19 have brought significant disruptions to the business. These demands have forced warehouse decision-makers to reevaluate their investment plans and expedite how they modernise operations.

While hiring skilled workers will remain a priority in 2021, additional labour will not be enough by itself to overcome the needs of warehouses right now. Warehouse managers are also looking at other ways to improve productivity and meet increasing demands—and one way is—by investing in new technologies.

“2020 has been a challenging year for manufacturers, retailers, warehouse operators, and logistics companies as consumers shift to e-commerce as a result of the pandemic. Meanwhile, labour challenges like shortage in workforce and unskilled manpower continue to plague the industry. As such, warehouse operators are eagerly optimising their operations by introducing the right technology to enhance their efficiency and cope with the increased workload,” says Jin Tan.

“Traditionally, many warehouse operations were designed to ship pallets filled with similar merchandise. However, with the rise of e-commerce, warehouse operations are quickly shifting to more ‘piece-based’ fulfilment, whereby a diverse set of goods must be quickly shipped to multiple locations.”

“Regardless of whether it is a manufacturing warehouse, a distribution centre, or managing inventory in a retail backroom, it is important for enterprises to be well-connected and have the visibility into all their assets, people, and processes at all times. It is crucial to have an integrated, productive, profitable, and compliant supply chain,” Jin Tan notes

“Today and tomorrow, warehouses must explore new ways to maintain operations, improve productivity and increase profitability. Understanding their end-user data to help them achieve this is critical.”

According to Jin Tan, the concept of overhauling a facility to shift from a people-driven workflow to complete automation captures a lot of headlines, but it helps to “walk before you run”.

“Instead of a complete focus on automating a workflow, deploying it in a hybrid manner to augment physical labour in select parts of operations is anticipated to grow significantly. This is the utilisation of both workers and robots—or the use of cobots—as opposed to the total replacement of humans for the vast majority of workflows.”

Diagnosing Pain Points

From innovating business models to optimising warehouse performance, automated intelligent operations can smoothly lead work for a longer duration, reducing the number of errors and workplace incidents. Today, warehouse robots provide greater speed and safety while allowing higher levels of productivity. On the other hand, they deliver consistent accuracy regardless of the tedious nature of the process. As a result, warehouses enjoy a higher level of inventory accuracy.

Not to question, with the increase in need and competition around improving order lead times in warehouses, it becomes imperative for companies to seriously consider utilising autonomous robots in their facilities—to better control the warehouse and inventory fulfilment environment—operated through the use of computers and guided by onboard sensors and maps.

“The acceleration in retail automation, spanning the entire supply chain from the store to warehousing operations and distribution centres has been driven by the demand for delivering directly to consumers. This creates a critical need to automate workflows to satisfy customer demand while also driving efficiency and productivity,” explains Jin Tan.

“In warehousing and supply chain, physical automation, radio-frequency identification (RFID) and temperature sensing technologies, combined with robotics including cobots that interface and co-work with humans help fulfilment centres improve e-commerce operations. They remove repetitive manual processes and unnecessary walking time, enhancing labour utilisation as well as reducing costs.”

“A typical warehouse operator walks many kilometers a day moving goods from different locations of the warehouse to the loading dock to have them shipped. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) significantly reduce this as the goods are brought to the operator within a specific workflow, increasing picking time and overall efficiency.”

“When we talk to customers about how they’re using robots/cobots—or how they plan to do so—the conversation often shifts back to partial automation or augmentation solutions. Only a handful of companies are thinking about how to achieve full automation. It still seems too futuristic or complicated. And that’s okay!”

“Proceeding with a partial automation strategy is a reasonable and responsible way to advance in digital transformation.”

However, a modernised warehouse isn’t just about robots and cobots, says Jin Tan. “It is also about achieving an overall visibility of the business in order to make critical decisions swiftly and decisively.”

“The ability to plan more effectively has become critical for warehouse operators, and this will continue in the future. Having solutions that enable a ‘visible warehouse’ is a key part of warehouse automation. Data is an invaluable asset, and its power is only unlocked if actioned at the right to drive an improved outcome. RFID technology and machine vision integrated with computer vision provides the visibility needed without relying on an under resourced workforce.”

The Solutions road by Zebra

With more than 10,000 partners across 100 countries, Zebra delivers industry-tailored, end-to-end solutions to manufacturing, retail e-commerce, transportation and logistics, and the public sector that include healthcare, police, fire and rescue services, as well as defence and security.

It is no secret that Zebra is aggressively developing solutions to help warehouse customers modernise their operations. The company has the reputation of being an innovator at the front-line of business with solutions and partners that deliver a performance edge.

Zebra’s mobile computing, scanning, and printing solutions connect each operational area in the warehouse to give companies the ability to realise transformational gains.

Zebra’s mobile computers have improved the efficiency and accuracy of stock keeping operations, while the wearable computer has given workers at the warehouse floor hands-free mobility to boost productivity. Additionally, pairing the Zebra printers with cordless scanner helps warehouse operators manage peak loads. Zebra’s Mobility DNA software has also helped companies streamline the implementation of its network and device management.

In July, Zebra announced it intension to acquire Fetch Robotics, a pioneer in on-demand automation. Fetch features the largest portfolio of AMRs in the industry and offers seamless integration with warehouse and manufacturing systems without the need for changes to facilities or infrastructure.

According to Zebra, the acquisition of Fetch Robotics will accelerate the company’s Enterprise Asset Intelligence vision and growth in intelligent industrial automation by embracing new modes of empowering workflows and helping customers operate more efficiently in increasingly automated, data-powered environments. Zebra says the move will also extend its ongoing commitment to optimise the supply chain from the point of production to the point of consumption.

“Ready or not, the on-demand economy is quickly shrinking lead times to hours. In some cases, fulfilment is occurring (or being forced to occur) within minutes. That rapid response burden is not going to ease anyway. If anything, it’s going to expand beyond the consumer retail sector. Manufacturers and retailers need a way to fulfil more orders with less labour and more easily respond to volume growth and seasonal peaks,” says Jin Tan.

“The Zebra Ventures automation portfolio duo—Plus One and Locus—are focussed on automating the picking, packing, shipping, receiving and sorting workflows within the warehouse in a way that will ultimately create an environment in which humans spend less time on mundane, repetitive tasks and more time on value-added actions.”

Additionally, Zebra’s focus on robotics automation combines workflow solutions for human workers, through its offerings such as ‘FulfillmentEdge’ and ‘SmartSight’. The result has been greater efficiency and higher ROI through better orchestration of technology and people.

“Even better, intelligent automation solutions that Zebra is investing in can easily integrate with the mobile, IoT, blockchain, AI, barcoding, RFID and printing technologies already in place in many warehouses, distribution centres and factories,” adds Jin Tan.

Looking ahead?

The demands that shaped the industry in 2020 will continue in 2021, leaving warehouses to evaluate how they will keep pace with consumer and commercial demands and expectations. The tactic is in much faster technology integration rather than building a new platform from the ground up or building on top of legacy solutions.

According to Jin Tan, Zebra will continue to work with its automation portfolio companies to help companies gain productivity and solve labour shortages issues, as he says systems with computer and machine vision will continue to drive automation in 2021 and beyond.

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