If your company isn’t talking about smart warehousing yet, you may be leaving a lot of productivity and money on the table. Today and well into the coming years, the survival of companies and the ability for humans to meet their material needs will increasingly rely on clean, well-operated, low-waste supply chains.
Let’s look at some of the constituent components of a smart warehouse and find out how each one contributes to the larger goal of a more stable and efficient supply chain.
Automated Systems and Cobots
One recent survey of distribution center and warehouse managers found that, between 2017 and 2018, average spending on material handling technology had risen by $30,000 per facility to a new average of just over $457,000. What’s causing this — and what does automation investment bring to the table?
Smart automation is one answer to low unemployment in the U.S. and elsewhere. As companies find themselves struggling to staff up, robots and cobots represent a way to get more work done, more accurately, in the same amount of time, and with (potentially) fewer human workers needed.
To see why this is important and how such investment supports a robust ROI, consider the case of “Chuck”— a cobot built by 6 River Systems. Human employees still pick products from warehouse libraries and racking, but Chuck serves as a mobile tote for those product picks that automatically returns to the staging and packing area once it’s full of product. Another empty Chuck replaces the full one automatically, meaning work continues uninterrupted.
By keeping employees on the floor instead of making many unnecessary return trips, 6 River says Chuck may double the rate of order picking in warehouses.
Wearables, Haptics and Pick-to-Voice
Warehousing managers know too well that humans are fallible creatures. And yet, we still have difficulty envisioning distribution centers wholly without a human presence. Humans are going to be integral to warehouse picking, packing, and stowing efforts for some time.
So what kinds of breakthroughs do we have on deck for dealing with picking errors and other sources of productivity- and profitability-sapping defects? Here’s a breakdown:
- Wearables: Wearable technology in warehouses can serve many functions. For one thing, it can provide automatic insights into working conditions and employee health. Plus, wearable scanners are an obvious addition to barcodes or RFID tags for inventory management. Removing handheld scanners and manual data input keeps inventory accurate and builds on the already stellar success rate of barcode-based picking for bin and inventory control.
- Haptic feedback: Another advantage of wearables in warehouses and distribution hubs involves the ability for users to receive real-time alerts if they retrieve a product from the wrong bin. Such “hand-tracking” hardware and software has already piqued Amazon’s interest and resulted in a patent. But widescale deployment will require serious attention to several unanswered questions about employee privacy.
- Pick-to-voice: Like wearables, pick-to-voice systems provide a way for employees to keep their hands clear of scanners and paperwork. But with this kind of technology, warehouse staff receive spoken directions to product bins and provide spoken feedback in return. For instance, such a system could require employees to read the last digits of a product number aloud to verify accuracy before the pick is marked complete.
Self-Monitoring Infrastructure and Equipment
The health of the physical assets in a warehouse, manufacturing plant, or distribution center have a direct bearing on the financial health of that same company. Here are a few numbers to put things in perspective:
- On average, manufacturers experience 800 hours of downtime per year across their manufacturing, material handling, and distribution locations and equipment.
- In the auto parts manufacturing industry, the cost of equipment downtime can be as high as $22,000 per hour and affects companies of all sizes.
- Unplanned downtime affects every industry, including warehousing. One study found that 70 percent of respondents had no way to tell whether their critical equipment had “come due” for maintenance.
That’s far too many company decision-makers being blindsided by machine maintenance and downtime. The obvious solution for warehouses, manufacturers, and other major supply chain entities is to use smart equipment and the Internet of Things to predict in advance when maintenance will become necessary.
In a warehouse setting, think of the physical assets required for a successful shift or workday: conveyor belts, scales, pallet trucks, forklifts, Ranpak (and other packaging) dispensing machines, and even the lighting and HVAC systems all contribute to daily and hourly productivity.
Warehouses can, and should, actively explore how to retrofit existing machines and infrastructure with IoT technologies to make them smarter about working together and better able to monitor their own productivity and condition automatically. Doing this prolongs the equipment’s lifespan and keeps business processes going without interruption, all at the low cost of a few strategically placed sensors.
The Cost of ‘Going Smart’
In closing, it’s worth parking for a moment on the potential cost of turning an ordinary warehouse into a smart one. Depending on their needs and ambitions, a company may see a price tag of $200 per square foot of warehouse space should they decide to modernize their surroundings with new technologies. And if a company rents their space, there may be questions about how many physical changes they’re allowed to make.
Even so, smart technology is now inescapable for warehouses. The benefits above are just the start of what’s possible when companies take even modest steps into the future.