An inside look at how technology advancements are making automation solutions more accessible to warehouse and logistic operators of all sizes. By Tan Aik-Jin, Vertical Solutions Lead, Zebra Technologies Asia Pacific.
It is 2021, and the worlds of manufacturing, logistics and retail have changed forever. In 2020, COVID-19 caused e-commerce to increase exponentially, growing an estimated 27.6 percent and accounting for US$4.28 trillion in global sales. And e-commerce growth shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
In fact, in a recent global survey, 53 percent of consumers said they were likely to continue their current online shopping habits after the pandemic. By 2024, an estimated US$1 out of every US$4 spent on retail will be expended online, representing US$7 trillion in global sales.
While demand for e-commerce is rising, the manufacturing and warehouse labour pools are shrinking. Many manufacturers are facing a severe labour crisis – one that could lower global annual revenue by $607 billion by 2030. In Asia Pacific, this labour crunch could cause a shortage of 47 million skilled workers and unrealised output of US$4.238 trillion by 2030.
So, how can companies ship more products with fewer workers? The answer is automation.
There are a number of different automation solutions that enable manufacturers, warehouse operators and logistics providers to get goods to consumers faster with greater accuracy, efficiency, and lower costs. And they are becoming increasingly easier and more cost-effective to deploy by companies of all sizes.
Automation Deployments are Becoming More Strategic – and More Scalable
The massive shift in consumer behavior in the last year compelled firms to search for new ways to quickly meet changing business requirements. As more consumers purchased online, the number of warehouse Stock Keeping Units (SKU) expanded dramatically along with the burden on already strained operations to pick, pack and ship items with greater speed and agility. Supply chain organizations also had to find ways to expand their physical space and storage capacity.
Warehouse managers didn’t have the luxury of spending months or years contemplating modernization efforts. Instead, they needed inventive solutions they could rapidly deploy. Much to their surprise, they found a great deal had changed from the last time they underwent such a dramatic transformation. Warehouse automation solutions have become much more scalable and flexible, delivering significantly faster Returns On Investments (ROI) than were previously possible. Necessity is truly the mother of invention.
Forward-thinking organisations are now deploying smart fulfillment solutions that leverage a combination of Radio Frequency IDentification (RFID), Real-Time Location Systems (RTLS) and wearables to optimise operational efficiency – and the results are staggering.
Picking assignments, for example, can now be dynamically assigned based on a picker’s location or urgency of an order. In turn, workers can simultaneously pick multiple orders and put away items all on a single trip. Heads-up displays and wearables are delivering best-next-step guidance and streamlining data capture to help simplify processes and improve workflow efficiency.
Real-time analytics are providing insights into how every worker is performing and documenting specific actions taken to prevent or correct errors to ensure performance goals are achieved. With just these improvements alone, warehouses are fulfilling up to 24 percent more orders every day.
Robots are Helping Human Workers Become More Productive
Once the human picking process is optimized and dynamic, many warehouse operators are choosing to deploy robotics automation – specifically, Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) – to move materials between pickers and transport completed orders to the packing area. AMRs can save valuable labor resources, particularly given that an average of 50 percent of warehouse labour is attributed to picking tasks.
Thanks to innovations in robotics, deployments no longer require a dedicated, human-free zone. Today’s AMRs can safely navigate warehouses filled with people, lift trucks, pallet racks and inventory shelving, and they easily integrate into existing operational processes.
Robotics platforms such as collaborative robots (cobots) are also highly effective in automating tasks that previously required fixed mechanisation deployments. Large-scale conveyor systems and automated storage and retrieval systems certainly still have their place.
However, robotics automation brings new levels of flexibility with lower costs and less risk. Besides, “hiring” these cobots no longer requires capital investments, as the emergence of robot-as-a-service (RaaS) options now offer companies the choice of leasing cobots rather than buying.
Improved Intelligence is Making Automation More Useful
Automation solutions are becoming more user-friendly and actionable thanks to prescriptive analytics, which is gaining increased traction in many sectors due to its unique ability to simplify complicated operational decisions.
Unlike many software solutions that sort through large volumes of historical data pulled from the cloud, this edge-based intelligent analytics solution evaluates a specific set of data collected from a specific set of devices – such as sensors, scanners, mobile computers and robotics automation platforms – to solve a defined problem.
Even better, it does so in real time. But this Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning-based solution does more than provide real-time analysis and insights of one’s operations. It also sends best-next-move instructions right to the front-line worker best positioned or skilled to correct issues the moment they are identified.
The alert, which is automatically sent to the worker’s handheld mobile computer, tablet or wearable, describes the identified problem and explains step-by-step how to resolve it. The worker, using either the prescriptive analytics solution or perhaps a task management app, can then notify the manager that the issue has been resolved.
This very simple, automated process takes out that extra layer of human decision making that can lead to a wrong decision. Everyone knows what to do – when, where, how and why – and there is trust that each task will be executed in a timely, error-free manner.
For example, on the loading dock, intelligent sensor-based solutions now give workers and managers visibility into key load metrics such as package dimensions, number of packages scanned and loaded per hour, trailer fullness and load density, as well as dock door turnaround times and worker efficiency rates.
These solutions automatically collect and analyse loading data before sending real-time alerts to workers and managers to help them optimise the packing process and, in some cases, adjust their resource allocation or overall load strategy as the trailer is being loaded.
This helps companies to ensure every trailer is loaded in the most efficient way possible and to the maximum load possible in that moment. In turn, companies can get packages out faster and more accurately, and the number of trailers needed to transport goods to their final destination can be reduced.
Before the pandemic, 80 percent of warehouse operators were planning on implementing new technology by 2024 to stay competitive. COVID-19 has accelerated this trend, as warehousing and logistics companies are quickly turning to automation to help them survive and, ultimately, thrive in today’s fast-changing business environment.
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