The future of warehousing: automation, robotics and energy efficiency

Due to the pandemic, the shift from physical stores to online spending has accelerated by an average of five years. In 2020, 87% of UK households shopped online and recent statistics show that 70% now prefer it. E-commerce is booming and it’s a trend that’s here to stay, with UK online retail spending expected to hit £75bn by 2024.

So what does this shift to digital spending mean logistically for businesses? The race is now on for retailers and third-party logistics (3PL) providers to secure more warehouse space and capture a share of this growing market. As it stands, warehouse space has already increased by 73% since the start of COVID-19 restrictions in March 2019. On top of that, Brexit has also played a role in bringing warehouses closer together. companies with their supply chains. It is expected that by 2024 the impact of UK e-commerce sales growth could require an additional 92 million square feet of warehouse space.

Business also needs speed and accuracy, with the average consumer expecting quick deliveries of products that are both made-to-order and easily returned. Consequently, the pressure is on businesses to operate as effectively and efficiently as possible to serve a growing market with ever-higher expectations – and all with fewer errors and at lower cost. This is where technology is called upon to play a major supporting role, bringing fundamental changes to how warehouses operate.

The Internet of Things (IoT)

IoT generally refers to connecting devices and sharing data through the Internet. In the warehousing world, this has become an increasingly important driver for driving automation. Thanks to the IoT, modern warehouses can be more connected, coordinated and transparent in their operations, which helps them manage growing demand and operate more efficiently.

IoT sensors give an object digital intelligence. This allows devices to communicate with other online systems in real time and share vital data with warehouse workers. Companies can use the IoT to connect their equipment, robots, drones and pallets, while monitoring their inventory and even supervising employees remotely. IoT is especially useful for a real-time view of inventory and capacity. Businesses can spot gaps as they appear and make the most of the available space. Meanwhile, customers can enjoy full transparency on package tracking.

Warehouse Management Systems (WMS)

A fully optimized WMS can improve a company’s productivity, increase efficiency and reduce costs by digitizing its processes. It also helps avoid common mistakes like slow shipments, poor inventory management, or incorrect product details – all of which can be costly and lead to unhappy customers.

This software supports a wide range of key day-to-day operations. These activities may include inventory management, inventory replenishment, order picking, labor management, and shipping. Ultimately, it provides insightful and holistic insight into operations. As a result, informed decisions can be made. For example, an accurate, real-time view of inventory means businesses can efficiently assess inventory needs and avoid backorders. A WMS can even be used to increase worker productivity, assigning them to specific tasks at the right time and guiding them through the warehouse in the most efficient way.

Automating

Automation has become a key element to boost warehouse operations. This can improve efficiency, speed, accuracy and safety. Over the next few years, all warehouse operations are expected to have some level of automation. In fact, automation is already a big market, accounting for more than $10 billion in annual global spend.

There are many exciting emerging technologies on the horizon, and it looks like the most established and proven technologies will have the greatest initial adoption. Recent industry research reveals that 65% of warehousing operations are expected to invest in conveyors and sorting systems within the next 3 years. 56% will adopt shuttle systems, which allow warehouses to increase throughput and storage density. Even well-established technologies – such as stacker cranes and traditional automated guided vehicles (AGVs) – are expected to experience relatively high levels of automation.

A way to help transport bulk goods quickly and safely, forklifts (FLTs) are a popular form of automation in warehouses. Modern FLTs are quick to power, as they run on liquid gas rather than batteries. Therefore, warehouses with their own centralized supply tank can benefit from automatic refill technology. This means they always have the power they need, increasing productivity and reducing downtime.

robots

As we look to the future, robots are expected to take center stage. In warehouses, robots can help operations become more efficient and productive while reducing errors and improving safety. It is estimated that there will be around 50,000 robotic warehouses by 2025 with over four million robot installations. Robots are already being used for a range of warehouse functions, from picking and packing to sorting, batching, transportation, inspection and security. Many large companies are investing in these emerging technologies. In 2021, Amazon has approximately 350,000 mobile training units.

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