BlogSupply Chain AutomationThe warehouse of the future will fully utilize automation.

Twenty years ago, a warehouse worker would wake up, fill a thermos with coffee, and hop into his car to drive to work. He might run into traffic on the way there and flip through radio stations looking for a good song. When he arrived at the warehouse, he would get the day’s paperwork from his supervisor, check out a set of forklift keys, and start a day of shuttling pallets of goods around the warehouse, occasionally stopping to give his coworkers a hand or to troubleshoot cantankerous machinery.

The warehouse of the future is already here–but only for some.

Today your typical warehouse worker likely grabs a coffee on the way to work and has a smartphone filled with playlists for the drive. Apps will warn him if there is traffic ahead and will suggest alternate routes. But when the worker arrives at the warehouse, his routine may take one of two paths. It may be almost identical to the routine of our warehouse worker of the past, or it could involve accessing the day’s manifest using a tablet, adjusting a program to account for deliveries, and then booting up a fleet of robots to handle the supply chain’s most menial tasks.

In other words, the warehouse of the future is already here–but only for some. Supply chains–and especially warehouses–haven’t been quick to adopt new technologies. Many companies don’t fully understand new advances or aren’t willing to pay the initial cost of adopting them. However, companies that are willing to take a leap have the chance both to reap the benefits of new tech and to lead the way in creating the future of the supply chain.

Communications Make the Warehouse of the Future Possible

Arguably the biggest difference between the present day and the world of twenty years ago is the presence of computers and communications technology in every aspect of life. In the supply chain, our ability to maintain communication and store data allowed the creation of Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) and Transportation Management Systems (TMS). These systems allow the tracking of products anywhere in the warehouse or in transit between warehouses. Originally, the chief advantage of these systems was to allow supervisors to check inventory in and out. Later, they could scan barcodes in order to keep track of loads without tedious manual data entry. However, today’s WMS’ have evolved beyond that.

A WMS saves supervisors a lot of the work needed to organize a warehouse and create loading and unloading plans.

A WMS in a warehouse equipped for Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tracking can automatically record what comes into and goes out of a warehouse. And it not only tracks what comes into a warehouse, where it was placed, and when it will need to be retrieved, but it can also suggest efficient locations to store products based on priorities and can design the optimal picking order for employees to follow when it is time retrieve products. A WMS saves supervisors a lot of the work needed to organize a warehouse and create loading and unloading plans. In the warehouse of the future, the WMS will be leveraged in even more advanced ways.

Combined with a wearable smart glasses display, a WMS might show an employee the most efficient route to and from a product. It could also track equipment and personnel moving around the warehouse and warn employees what’s coming around the corner, helping to create a safer warehouse. When combined with automated systems, a WMS can help build a warehouse that has unmatched throughput, process controls, and safety. And when enough systems are automated, the warehouse of the future may have very few humans overseeing its processes.

Automation’s Role in the Warehouse of the Future

A futuristic warehouse is entirely robotic.Automated systems are already present in warehouses and distribution centers around the world. In fact, they are a large part of what makes the world of e-commerce possible. Amazon maintains several logistics centers in which Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) in the warehouse move shipments from one area to another. In the grocery supply chain, large manufacturers of dairy products use an Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) to massively increase throughput and help ensure the ideal temperatures of perishable goods aren’t exceeded during any part of the process. While automation is often discussed as a way to replace human labor and reduce the associated costs, the following advantages of warehouse automation are often overlooked:

  • Precise Procedural Controls: ASRSs and AGVs execute their pre-programmed commands without fail or modification. If they cannot perform a task, they will notify someone in charge to resolve the problem. This is a big advantage over human labor; a robot will never forget to perform a step or cover up the fact that they forgot to perform a step. Automated systems carry out their tasks as programmed and record procedures as they are performed.
  • Improved Space Efficiency: Automated equipment generally takes up less space than human-operated heavy equipment. This allows a warehouse to narrow its accessways and dedicate more of the building’s footprint to storing products. A purpose-built ASRS can also reach higher than any forklift, improving cube utilization in the warehouse.
  • Reduced Interruptions: ASRSs and AGVs don’t require breaks or a shift change, as employees do. A properly set up and maintained automated warehouse can operate around the clock without stopping. The result is increased throughput and greater operational capacity.

While implementing automation does require a substantial investment in both time and money, declining costs and savings over time have led to greater adoption of automation, and AGVs and ASRSs are likely to be standard in the warehouse of the future. It’s also likely that automation will expand into loading docks and transportation systems where it is not currently present.

Planning for an Intelligent Transformation

ASRS may have even more of a role in the warehouse of the future.The warehouses of the future may already be among us, but they are not yet standardized, nor are they universal. You can still find many warehouses that operate on plenty of old-fashioned forklift drivers and human labor. This, in turn, affects companies planning to upgrade and automate their warehouses, as any automated facilities will still have to work in conjunction with old-fashioned warehouses until those can be upgraded or replaced. As a result, an intelligent transformation must be based on standard unit load level shipping platforms, so that loads will be interchangeable between warehouses looking to the future and those stuck in the past.

The current standard shipping platform for most industries is the reusable wood block pallet. While it has served the global supply chain for decades, it may not have a place in the warehouse of the future. Wood is prone to splintering, shedding loose nails, and leaving chunks of wood behind, all of which can clog and damage automated systems. Wood pallets also don’t offer much in the way of trackability, as they depend heavily on tedious traditional recording methods to back up paper pallet license plates with scannable barcodes.

Plastic pallets are engineered with uniform weights and dimensions and have a unitized construction with no nails or other fasteners that could harm an automated system.

Fortunately, alternative shipping platforms are available that are designed to keep automated systems running smoothly while still matching ISO standard pallet dimensions. Plastic pallets are engineered with uniform weights and dimensions and have a unitized construction with no nails or other fasteners that could harm an automated system. This makes them a perfect fit for use with ASRSs and AGVs, where pallet failure or debris can result in expensive downtime and machinery damage. High-quality plastic pallets are also embedded with global standard GS1 identifiers that can be tracked either by reading a barcode or through RFID, making managing inventories with a WMS easier and more precise. Wood pallets don’t have a place in the warehouse of the future, but plastic pallets are flexible, adaptable, and intelligent shipping platforms for any warehouse, whether high-tech or old-fashioned.

The iGPS pallet pool rents a high-quality plastic pallet that is intelligently equipped with a GS1 standard Global Returnable Asset Identifier readable via RFID. To begin the intelligent transformation of your supply chain, give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at [email protected], or visit our contact page.