Between increasing demand, supply chain disruptions, and labor shortages driving up costs and opportunities, there is more pressure than ever on third-party logistics (3PL) providers to perform faster and more efficiently. According to this year’s Third-Party Logistics Warehouse Benchmark Report, 47% of 3PLs surveyed think automating will be their greatest opportunity in the coming year.
Automation can mean many things, from a warehouse management software (WMS) system, to picking and packing robots, to drone deliveries. While some may think of these more futuristic trends in automation as something that may impact their competitiveness someday, the truth is that the challenges mentioned above have sped up adoption of automated practices as 3PLs fight to gain efficiency advantages. Here are the trends to be watching as we look forward to the new year and beyond.
Robots – Collaborative, Mobile, and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
There are a few different types of robots that automated warehouses increasingly employ ranging from robots that work alongside employees to robots that perform tasks for employees. The first type, called collaborative robots, work with employees to perform tasks that are difficult, repetitive, or time-consuming. For example, robots can lift heavy objects or robotic arms can speed up the packing process, saving employees from performing repetitive manual tasks. Mobile robots can perform more advanced tasks like picking, packing, and putting away. Many of them have machine learning capabilities that allow them to adapt to their environment in real time. AGVs are often like forklifts, but automated, self-driving on a preset route, moving product from one area of the warehouse to another.
Many robots can send inventory data back to your WMS in real time, as well as enhance productivity and efficiency by increasing the speed of work and maximizing space in the warehouse by optimizing inventory. They also can improve safety in the warehouse by performing dangerous or physically demanding tasks previously performed by humans. In addition, employees can focus on higher value work, as opposed to spending time on tedious manual tasks like walking or driving from one end of the warehouse to another. Hiring trends indicate that technology can be a selling point to prospective employees in a competitive labor market. Automating, in turn, can enable warehouses to scale with fewer workers and reduce costly manual errors.
Industrial Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT devices can have a multitude of useful purposes within a warehouse. Many IoT devices consist of sensors either placed on or built into tools that are used in warehouse operations. The purpose of IoT is to gather data in real time that can help warehouse managers make better decisions and realize new efficiencies. For example, IoT sensors can track the location of an item, making inventory tracking and management automatic. They can also reduce theft and loss by notifying employees when objects are moved out of a particular area. Some IoT devices can sense temperature and pressure and alert when equipment is not functioning properly or may need maintenance. Then there are drones, which have many potential uses, including moving small items from one side of the warehouse to another or even package delivery.
Uses of IoT in the warehouse have a wide range of possibilities. They can enhance customer service through preemptive inventory notifications and quick automated response to inquiries. It can also give insight into where a package is in its shipment process, giving warehouse managers more valuable information to share with customers and increasing their ability to resolve problems. Some IoT applications, such as a digital bill of lading, can be encrypted with blockchain, providing added security to warehouse and customer communications and agreements. IoT devices may be able to detect language in customer contracts and help warehouses stay in compliance with their agreements. The uses and benefits of IoT are endless, ranging from administrative to fulfillment tasks.
Another exciting automation trend involves wearables, allowing warehouse procedures like picking and packing to become not only location flexible, but also hands-free. An example of a device that can assist workers with tasks like picking and packing would be Google Glass or similar device. Glasses like these can automatically read barcodes and connect with a WMS, eliminating the need to walk back and forth from a pack station. Some wearables utilize augmented reality, allowing for voice recognition, visual prompts and confirmations, and automated photo uploads, including commentary.
Like robots, wearables can also reduce repetitive manual tasks for employees, allowing them to work at a much faster pace and with greater accuracy. They also allow for truly hands-free receiving, putaway, picking, and packing, which can greatly increase speed while maintaining accuracy. Data can automatically flow back to a WMS, enabling seamless information transfer and greatly improved visibility into what employees are doing in the warehouse.
Warehouse Management Systems
A comprehensive WMS is the glue that holds systems of devices together. Data captured by robotic, IoT, and wearable devices stored and analyzed in a WMS can give employees and management complete insight into many different areas of operations at once. Many WMS systems offer built-in and custom business intelligence reporting, which can be used to track inventory, employee productivity, and fulfillment processes based on data captured by wireless tools.
It is important for 3PLs to understand these trends in automation because they will shape the future of competition within the industry faster than we think. Today, 3PLs are under greater pressure than ever before to reduce costs and optimize productivity while staying in compliance with service level agreements (SLAs) and communicating with their customers. A WMS can not only capture and store data, but also turn inputs from other devices into valuable output in the form of automated customer communications, employee alerts, and stock notifications.
As the market continues to evolve at a rapid pace, Extensiv is constantly innovating our technology to provide more value to 3PLs. To stay on top of changes and trends in the marketplace, subscribe to our blog for more 3PL news and resources.