23 January 2018

Automation and the future of warehousing

Back in the late 1800s, the introduction of hoists shook up warehousing operations across the world. In the early 1900s, forklifts did the same all over again, boosting productivity for commerce businesses of all kinds. Fast forward a hundred years or so, and it’s time for the next big revolution: automation.

It’s clear that significant changes are afoot, and while the world’s big-budget businesses are the ones making the most notable moves at present, all signs point to robots and artificial intelligence becoming the norm in warehouses of all sizes before too long.

Could you be next?

The early movers Forward-thinking companies are already investing big in automation to ease pressure and streamline processes. Amazon is the prime example here – the US retail giant started introducing robots to its warehouses in 2014 and now has more than 100,000 in operation across the globe.

Amazon says it began its robotics journey “on the notion that in order to meet consumer demands in eCommerce, a better approach to order fulfilment solutions was necessary.”

Others soon followed suit, Ocado being the UK’s most prominent example. At its fulfilment centre in Hampshire, the online supermarket firm not only uses robots to pick and pack orders, but also to manage products based on their sell-by dates. And that’s just the start: co-founder and CEO Tim Steiner recently said that "every human touch point [in the fulfilment centre] is designed to one day be replaced by a robotic solution."

So, why should we automate?

It’s often said that a business’s biggest asset is its workforce, and while that’s still true to a certain extent, humans do have limitations. Human error is still a big consideration for fast-moving retail businesses, for example; people also get sick, and must be paid regularly. More than anything, though, humans can’t match the efficiency of machines when it comes to repetitive tasks like picking and packing – and that efficiency is what separates the successful businesses from the struggling ones.

The machines in place at Amazon’s warehouses are designed to remove those monotonous tasks from workers’ hands, allowing them to focus their attention on the things that require genuine human attention, such as customer service. The result is a much smoother operation, fewer errors and bigger profit margins.

Managing data effectively

Most businesses are fuelled in some way or another by data, whether they realise it or not. And, as the presence of technology grows in warehouses, so too does the amount of useful information available. Managing it, however, is a daunting prospect.

This is why, away from the robots being used to carry goods, businesses are starting to rely more heavily on software to turn their data into useful insights and help them put it into action. This kind of automation, where records are updated immediately and made available in real-time, helps to keep everything running at maximum efficiency. The paperwork and laborious admin is removed, leaving workers to pick, pack and process more during their shifts. We’re proud to provide warehouse managers with the tools they need to record and make better use of data. Our handheld computers are in use in the warehouses of companies across various industries, and the list of happy customers continues to grow. To find out more about how our solutions could help you, get in touch today.