James Lawton, VP and GM Robotics Automation, Zebra Technologies, rethinking robotics, operations, and the evolving nature of work.
We’re all waiting for the headlines to focus on something besides the latest pandemic numbers or the ups and downs of supply chain performance. As I write this, there does not seem to be much change on the immediate horizon. After nearly 24 months of “wait and see,” we understand that we’re never going back to the way things were. It’s time to take on the challenges — some brought to us by the pandemic and others that are age-old that simply have become impossible to ignore any longer.
In the case of warehouse operations, the pandemic has placed new pressures on responsiveness and scalability that have exacerbated labor, capacity and quality issues. It has shined a glaring spotlight on archaic processes and outdated data strategies that hobble the transformation required to meet today’s expectations of both manufacturers and consumers.
While not a scientific survey by any means, in conversations with customers, analysts and colleagues, I consistently hear about these challenges that are on the radar. They’re pining for strategies and solutions that can remove the obstacles to improvement in efficiency, productivity and resiliency.
I’m constantly amazed by warehouse operations teams that work hard to keep goods moving in and out every day, even as they move quickly to adopt new ways of thinking about and executing the process.
Finding And Keeping Workers
The labor shortages in warehouse operations made headline news throughout the pandemic and continue to be a challenge. Recent research from the Harvard Business Review looked into warehouse workers’ fears and hopes in regard to automation. The results are interesting well beyond the hard numbers — especially the recommendations on how operations leaders can better support workers — even as they deploy automation.
• Create and encourage paths for career growth.
• Get training right and keep training.
• Make safety investments regularly.
The increasing volume of goods that need to move in and out of the warehouse has caused capacity constraints. Many neighbors do not necessarily welcome new warehouses built by e-tailers and their logistics partners, making it harder to expand capacity as quickly as needed in some markets.
Automation can help with optimizing available space. For example, Waytek, a wholesale distributor of electronic components, was using a conveyor sortation system designed to process approximately 800 orders per day. In 2020, the company found that it was bumping up against that maximum, and the system was struggling. Adding another conveyor system was simply not an option, given the footprint of the warehouse, so the team looked at AMRs. Ultimately, working with Fetch (which we’ve acquired), Waytek saved over 10,000 square feet of storage space, increased the number of orders processed each day to over 1,000 and will be able to expand in the existing space with additional AMRs.
Outdated Processes That Hobble Agility
In many warehouses, paper still rules — and, with it, inefficiency in large part because current processes still reflect how work used to be done. In 2020, the MHI Annual Industry Report, which looks at technology innovation taking place across the supply chain industry (and the associated workforce challenges), found that 12% of respondents were using artificial intelligence (AI) technology but 67% believed that automation had “the potential to disrupt the industry or create a competitive advantage.”
There are good reasons for the disconnect. Skepticism is a big one, as is the sheer lack of time to try something new. However, I believe that the industry is at a point where change is no longer optional. The uncertainty we’ve now lived with for 24 months is one reason. So, too, is the reality that any type of local, national or global crisis could quickly escalate into wholesale disruption. Accelerating the adoption and innovation of AI can enable the agility needed to respond to fluctuations in demand, supply uncertainty and the pressures of seasonality.
Warehouse operations teams can prioritize where and what to invest in by looking at several broad categories that will improve the process.
• Communications. The advances in connectivity made possible through the Industrial Internet of Things can accelerate the speed and accuracy of communications in the warehouse. When all devices can communicate with one another, the continuous analysis of data streams is able to inform and implement real-time adjustments in integrated warehouse management systems.
• Logistics. Machine learning applications can gather data from sensors to identify patterns and then make recommendations for action for everything from pallet placement and faster replenishment of nearly out-of-stock items to shorter walking routes and better inventory positioning.
• Productivity. Warehouses cover many, many square feet, and just moving from point to point to pick the goods to fill an order fuels a great deal of inefficiency in the overall workflow. People leverage dexterity and cognitive abilities to rapidly and reliably pick out the correct item. The people-to-goods model, where associates receive guidance in real time on where the next “pick” will take place within a defined zone, meet the AMR at the location and offload the order for delivery by the AMR to a packing station, can reduce travel time and distraction. When associates work in harmony with AMRs on picking tasks, accuracy and speed increase — resulting in higher throughput.
No Time Like Right Now
There’s no doubt that many of the challenges above existed in warehouse operations long before the pandemic. Every journey, as they say, begins with a single step. Even as we wait for our new normal to arrive, the behaviors learned during the pandemic may lessen. However, they will not go away, and there is no time like the present to build the operation of tomorrow.