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Transformation Technologies For The Warehouses Of Tomorrow

Wed, 10/30/2013 - 8:49am

With the recovery from the global recession strengthening and evolving, repercussions are being felt in business operations throughout the enterprise. As the rise of online commerce and omnichannel fulfillment place a premium on increased customer and supplier service and satisfaction within the retail industry, the ramifications of that change are felt across warehouse and distribution operations in virtually every industry. A once relatively straightforward world of storage and fulfillment has become a world of increasing complexity, change and challenge.

The movement from linear to complex, multi-node supply chains is behind this dramatic shift, driven by changes that include greater volatility, constrained capacity, evolving regulations, major shifts in customer demographics and buying patterns, and increasingly demanding customer and supplier requirements.  

Complex Challenges

Many of these complexities are identified in Motorola Solutions’ recent 2013 Warehouse Vision Survey. The study calls attention to a variety of changes that will affect warehousing operations in the manufacturing industry over the next five years: the need for more and larger warehouses and distribution centers; an increasing number of SKUs in three separate but integrated inventories: raw materials, finished goods and spare parts; a move toward increased automation and mechanization in every part of the process and a growing reliance on high-speed mobile communications technology to maximize efficiency and productivity. And all the while, manufacturers are focused on providing flawless fulfillment in serving their customers and accelerating inventory turns to enhance profitability and grow free cash flow.

The study also notes how today’s warehouse professionals are planning to transform the warehouse in response to the changes and challenges of the next five years.

Technology-Driven Workflows

The transformation of the warehouse begins with faster, more powerful new technologies. As the survey shows, the use of manual, paper-driven processes is rapidly diminishing in warehouses. Throughout the manufacturing industry, warehouse automation and mechanization are expanding. Although the starting point is often the crucial pick-and-fill process, today’s warehouse professionals are expanding the use of technology to adjacent materials management and inventory control workflows including inbound handling, storage and inventory and outbound handling. 

Advanced Technology Solutions

As our industry prepares to evolve warehousing operations, each workflow process is undergoing significant operational changes, many — if not most — driven by advanced technology. Warehousing professionals in the manufacturing sector are leveraging a wide range of hardware and software solutions to raise the bar for efficiency, productivity and cost effectiveness across every part of the operation.

Inbound Handling Technologies

The receiving and put-away functions are growing in importance as the first chronological step in streamlining warehouse operations. Changes include growth in the percent of inbound materials that are barcoded, the need to accommodate more stringent demands from suppliers to support the receiving process, and the increased use of productivity enhancing activities such as cross docking.

The technology portfolio for inbound handling is growing more innovative. The increased use of ASNs and GS1 standards will help speed receiving and put-away at the pallet and case levels. Handheld and wearable computers, scanners and multimodal devices will speed sortation while tablet computers will enable workers to view a full manifest quickly and easily. Vehicle-mounted mobile computers and long-range imagers provide the foundation for omnidirectional scanning from rolling stock, and support for both 1D and 2D barcodes.

Storage and Inventory Technologies 

Paper-based cycle counts are on the endangered list as manufacturing organizations turn to real-time, automated warehouse management systems (WMS) entry, with linkage to enterprise resource planning (ERP), yard management systems (YMS) and transportation management systems (TMS). Technology is also being used to drive a more frequent cadence for inventory validation and for finding new efficiencies in storage and asset tracking and management.

Innovative inventory and storage technology includes adaptive, platform-based and modular mobile computing solutions that deliver the flexibility needed for enhanced task interleaving that enables cycle counting to be conducted simultaneously with other processes. Mobile access throughout the warehouse is provided by intuitive, easy-to-use industrial browsers on larger format tablet and vehicle-mounted computers. Also growing is the use of robust, reliable network and device options that enable consistent operation across all storage operations.

Order Picking-and-Filling Technologies

Pick-and-fill processes — typically the top priority for most warehouse operations — are becoming more automated and flexible. The reduction of scan-only or voice-only picking and replenishment is giving way to more productive multimodal processes using efficient new handheld and wearable devices.

Manufacturing is seeing a major shift to multimodal devices and software tied into WMS backend systems offering flexible, user-designed interfaces and workflows. Other new software solutions include client-side and cloud-based picking applications that speed deployment and enhance flexibility, while changing investment models to help achieve an accelerated ROI. In terms of devices, innovative new handheld, wearable and holstered form factors offer advanced capabilities to help meet aggressive picking efficiency targets. Robust, facility-wide industrial-grade wireless networks and solutions will maximize reliability while increasing the speed of the picking process, and minimizing delays caused by latency issues or coverage gaps.

Outbound Handling Technologies

In the new warehousing dynamic, customer satisfaction is seen as a major corporate objective and differentiator. Processes driven by customer need are playing a more important role in operations, with more automated packing, staging, loading and shipping functions taking advantage of load optimization, real-time performance monitoring, reverse logistics and technology-enhanced traceability and accountability solutions.

A wide variety of IT solutions are poised to help warehouse personnel provide outbound material handling operations that maximize efficiency, reduce costs and enhance customer satisfaction. Packing stations can be equipped with mobile wireless computers, scanning and RFID devices, as well as fixed mount kiosk solutions, to increase speed and efficiency while reducing errors and damage. Workers can utilize wearable devices to see real-time updates on pack and load plans. Robust wireless outdoor coverage will integrate dock and yard operations with the warehouse, providing end-to-end efficiency while integrated video capabilities can be used for quality control and proof of compliance.

Five-Year Evolution

In the manufacturing industry, the next five years will see technology help transform the warehouse from a tactical cost center to a strategic opportunity for growth. Fewer organizations will view warehouses and distribution centers simply as commoditized links between endpoints of the supply chain. Overall, the 2013 Warehouse Vision Surveyshows that more manufacturing industry professionals are seeing the bigger picture and viewing warehouses facilities as historically underleveraged centers that can drive competitive differentiation and increase profitable growth.

For more information, please visit the 2013 Warehouse Vision Survey.

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