In my recent 3PL Americas magazine article, I argued that 3PLs must adapt their network, distribution and labor activities to respond to increasing demands of customers in an omni-channel age. I focused on best practices in labor management systems, but another core component of this adaptation is leveraging emerging automation technologies.
In a smart warehouse, all hardware and software technologies interface with each other. Highly automated material handling equipment receives orders from and provide data to a warehouse management system (WMS) and to workers.
Getting to this point requires well-designed systems, repeatable processes and Kaizen and Lean principals. Not only do you now have the ability to automate, but this consistency gives you a reliable set of measurements and metrics to prove the ROI of your investment.
There are some point solutions that can help in the short term. Voice-activated order management, wearables and auto-guided vehicles (AGVs) are useful, less expensive options for improving warehouse productivity:
- Vuzix makes a hands-free augmented reality (AR) solution using smart glasses, combining the best of voice-guidance with pick-to-light identification. Wearing AR glasses, workers can complete their tasks quickly and efficiently while reducing mistakes.
- Fetch Robotics has developed a simple robotic assistant that makes the physical work of manually picking orders simpler while sending completed orders to the shipping department faster.
Even simple systems must be able to talk to each other so that inventory, order, and shipping/tracking data can be shared automatically as orders are processed. To do that, systems will need to be tightly integrated in order to give real-time visibility into data movement.
In the examples above, the smart glasses app exchanges order and inventory data in real time while the AGV application sends a full order to shipping at the same time it deploys a new robot to assist the picker. Standard, pre-defined events trigger actions that keep things moving smoothly.
Any company that’s not already using automation should be seriously considering it. Further adoption of robots and conveyors will continue, and the communication and orchestration tools needed to control that equipment will become more plug-and-play. The breadth of what a typical Warehouse Control System can handle will expand as the Internet of Things sees more automated and connected devices become standard in the warehouse.