Traditionally, warehouses have been sprawling, manually operated facilities with a handful of forklifts, a waiting room for truck drivers and stacks of paperwork to document transactions. However, shifts in retail distribution have boosted the distribution center and warehouse industry into a high-tech, fast-paced world. Today, managers process unprecedented volumes of goods, while keeping workers safe and moving products to and from trucks within hours—sometimes while packing and repacking those goods—and do it with as few errors as possible. Enabling this transition is technology such as robotics, drones, mass conveyor systems and the internet of things (IoT) technology to track what is taking place in real time.
Integrators are taking on a variety of installations to help the logistics industry meet the demands of an impatient world.
The evolution from standard warehouse to intelligent distribution center was already underway when COVID-19 upended the economy and the supply chain. In fact, digitalization and intelligence in retail distribution vaulted forward in 2020 at a rate that had been on a 10-year trajectory before the pandemic. In part, this was fueled by those ordering goods that they expect to receive today, not in a few days or next week.
“It starts with the consumer,” said Jim Dempsey, director of U.S. business development and partnerships at Panasonic System Solutions Co. of North America, Newark, N.J. While initially the expectation was for orders to be fulfilled, shipped and received within a week or two, buyers now order food, household goods, office supplies or manufacturing tools and supplies with the expectation of receiving the product in just a few hours.
That has required many changes in warehouses. New facilities are opening closer to customers, receiving, storing and shipping a wider variety of products. Because goods move so quickly, more pickers are at work in the warehouses, too.
Additionally, Dempsey said returns are skyrocketing. As much as 30% of goods ordered online are being returned today. That means warehouses are receiving a high volume of product from both ends of the supply chain.
With the pandemic still untamed, employers need to ensure workers don’t come into close proximity with each other and potentially cause a spreader event in the warehouse. Tech tools can solve most of these problems and are widely employed.
Panasonic sells products equipped with technology such as Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and RFID for asset tracking, and it also has an IoT Solutions division focused on technology to help numerous industries, including warehouses, track people and equipment. With location-based data, warehouses can leverage real-time and historical information based on sensor data about the flow of goods in the facility, delays, bottlenecks and potential for error.
Healthcare is another market with critical supply-chain requirements. Pharmaceutical and medical supply company McKesson Corp., Irving, Texas, uses intelligent warehouses to move its healthcare products and medications.
At a typical McKesson warehouse, thousands of workers pick and pack goods together with automated systems; speed and accuracy are critical. McKesson uses integrated technology to reduce workers’ steps with A-Frame—a self-contained, automated piece-picking machine—for the fastest moving products. This configurable technology is used for picking and packing small goods such as pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, tobacco, office items and contact lenses. An order storage and retrieval system also brings products to associates as they are packed for orders, and the system automatically detects the goods and their expiration dates before shipping to the customer.
System software, in many cases, collects data about what is taking place in real time so management can oversee operations without being directly on the busy floor, thereby increasing the ability to work remotely and reduce the number of people in the warehouse.
Mobile devices, fixed readers and scanners identify what is being picked or packed, as well as when goods come into and leave the warehouse, reducing the need to stop and scan bar codes and preventing errors before they can happen, such as a carton being loaded on the wrong van.
Blockchain data captures the details related to what takes place on-site and stores that information in immutable ledgers that can be viewed by warehouse managers, shippers and customers to understand what is occurring during the loading of goods.
In addition to conveyor belts, automatic vehicles such as driverless forklifts and drones help keep track of what is on-site. Some of this warehouse automation includes conveyors and robotics—an automated system to receive, store and retrieve goods as needed. Robotic capabilities are continuing to improve. In 2019, Amazon, had 200,000 robots already in use, working alongside hundreds of thousands of human workers.
Over time, this smart warehouse technology could reduce the carbon footprint of some of the largest logistics centers, since the added efficiency and visibility results in less movement of goods on-site and fewer workers who require lighting and HVAC systems.
Still, warehousing technology remains woefully behind that of today’s manufacturing facilities. Logistics Bureau, a global specialty management consulting company headquartered in Sydney, has also indicated a fast-paced change in warehouse management even before COVID-19 put new pressure on the supply chain. The long-term goal is to reduce the number of workers on-site by using technology to make warehouse activities more efficient. Faster picking is accomplished through software on forklifts that points workers to the location of goods, using technology such as real-time location systems.
Paperwork is eliminated as each transaction is automatically stored based on the location of the forklift, the warehouse operator and the delivery vehicle parked at the dock doors. For instance, TagMaster North America, Tacoma, Wash., has a solution in which battery-assisted passive RFID tags can be applied to forklifts to identify when they are approaching an automated door and confirm whether the door will open. The same technology can be used to alert drivers if they come within range of each other, which helps prevent collisions.
In the long term, the focus will be on reducing the need for personnel in more automated warehouses, which could reduce expenses on several levels, including the cost of energy used on-site as well as payroll. When it comes to lighting, LED industrial fixtures are replacing the conventional lamps, which use a fraction of the energy required traditionally, while the level of lighting required can be lower, which saves carbon footprint and cost.