Tech is booming in all sectors. To keep up, warehouses have to focus on the latest technology trends to improve both accuracy and efficiency as well as stay ahead of the competition.
Technology is moving at warp speed with new innovations emerging every month. A smart warehouse has taken the steps needed to become automated, which increases the capabilities of its employees and all processes. Think of your third-party logistics (3PL) warehouse as a well-oiled machine, and the oil is the latest technological advances that are going to keep things functioning smoothly with very few hiccups.
Ecommerce needs have skyrocketed since COVID-19 with consumers now ordering online from home and others opting to work remotely. Rapid delivery and easy returns are no longer a ‘perk’ but a ‘requirement.’
If a warehouse isn’t up to snuff and fails to meet customer demands, then it will quickly be overtaken by smart third-party logistics providers who have stepped up their game. The booming industry has made the environment very dog eat dog.
In this article, we examine how to keep your smart warehouse flexible, functional, and effective by embracing the latest warehouse technology trends
Why Should You Automate Your Warehouse?
We cannot list the top warehouse technology trends without focusing on automation. Nowadays, every trend is tailored for automation. Honestly, with 3PL warehouse trends, automation and technology are inseparable. Automation is here to stay and will continue to be the wave of the future.
Many owners of third-party logistics businesses who have been in the business a long time wonder why they should even take the steps needed to automate their warehouses. They have the old-school viewpoint, “if it’s not broken, why fix it?” However, 3PLs that still rely on manual processes are going to quickly become the dinosaurs of the industry. Their potential staying power is non-existent.
A 3PL warehouse management system (WMS) that bids adieu to manual procurement quickly eliminates the risk of human error, lowers the incidences of injuries, and provides optimism to workers who might be struggling to even keep up.
With automation, you can quickly and accurately assess all of your workforce requirements and make any necessary changes. You’ll be able to keep the fast-paced demands of your customers without hitting stumbling blocks that can slow down operations.
When looking at the latest warehouse trends, the first thing you’ll notice is that there are a wide array of tools and products available. You’ll need to weed through what's good, mediocre, or just plain bad.
Ideally, you should invest only in prominent technologies that improve your day-to-day operations and provide dependable integrated performance. Don’t settle for anything that is subpar or that your company will quickly outgrow.
What is Warehouse Automation?
Lots of non-tech-savvy people might be confused by the term warehouse automation. It sounds mysterious and a little too dubious for some. They may mistakenly believe that they will hand over their warehouse operations to a team of robots.
Warehouse automation simply refers to the process of effectively replacing repetitive tasks with efficient automated systems. The entire goal of automation is to eliminate expensive, time-consuming, and labor-intensive tasks with a more streamlined process.
With warehouse automation, workers are freed up to focus on value-based tasks such as quality control.
When researching warehouse automation, you’ll discover two types of warehouse automation:
Digital automation uses a combination of software and electronics to reduce and alleviate manual processes so employees can better focus on customers and vendors.
A WMS is classified as digital automation software. It can replace manual processes such as inventory tracking while offering information to customers regarding their orders and location in the supply chain. Also, it helps to improve the overall customer service efficiency of 3PLs.
Physical automation uses automation equipment to reduce employee labor. Examples of physical automation include automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that are used to transfer goods within the warehouse and reduce the physical effort needed by human employees. Without needing to physically perform many warehouse functions, the incidences of work-related injuries are reduced.
Benefits of Warehouse Technology and Automation
Warehouses are costly to operate. If there are any errors or obstacles, then profitability plunges. It doesn’t take long for doom to appear on the horizon. The Bureau of Labor Statistics states that it takes a warehouse $3.7 million dollars just to cover labor expenses each year (which does not include overtime, health insurance, or unemployment insurance).
Lower your operating expenses with warehouse technology and automation.
How does automation impact warehouse efficiency?
Adopting automation technology for your warehouse provides the following benefits:
- Reduces the incidences of human error
- Enhances material handling coordination
- Minimizes labor needs
- Optimizes inventory controls
- Ensures workplace safety (lowering the incidences of work-related injuries)
- Enhances customer service
Examining the Top Five Warehouse Technology Trends
Let's examine the top five warehouse technology trends that can help improve the functionality of your 3PL warehouse. With so many popular tools and products, you should focus on choosing the most prominent ones to streamline your 3PL’s operations for better integration and improved performance.
1. Warehouse Management System Software
A WMS platform reduces costs and increases warehouse productivity, which are two major win/win factors that you should not overlook. You can also integrate with other 3PL providers and ensure open communications. WMS software can integrate with enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, order management systems (OMS), and accounting software like QuickBooks.
If you have not already taken the steps to digitize your warehouse process, then now is the time! It is imperative that you install a stellar WMS to tackle tasks such as inventory management, accounting, replenishment, labor management, order picking, and shipping.
An advanced WMS is your eye-in-the-sky by giving you a true and realistic bird’s eye view of your entire 3PL operation process so you can tweak and optimize things the way you want them to function. You’ll be more equipped to manage your inventory and provide unparalleled distribution.
An effective WMS consolidates warehouse data onto an easily accessible platform. You can easily view everything that is happening with your supply chain, benefit from real-time statistics, enjoy lightning-fast reporting and enhance your planning capabilities.
The perfect WMS for your needs should complement your 3PL’s autonomous processes and offer the following benefits:
- Access data in real time
- Increase visibility of the supply chain
- Provide accurate forecasting
- Offer efficient labor allocation
- Effortlessly manage inventory
- Lower labor costs
- Optimize the layout of the warehouse
- Automate routine tasks
- Improve accuracy of inventory
- Fine-tune warehouse processes
- Improve picking accuracy
- Reduce time between picks
- Enhance responsiveness and flexibility of the warehouse
- Secure and improve warehouse safety
- Increase supplier relationship satisfaction levels
- Provide improved customer service
- Offer an ongoing strategy for optimization
- Provide comprehensive warehouse inventory software
- Assist with accounting
- Reduce billing time
- Visualize use of warehouse space
- Offer greater inventory management
- Automate orders between API/EDI integrations and shopping carts
- Allow quick storage of inbound inventory with directed putaway
- Create scalable and repeatable workflows for each customer
- Capture all warehouse billable events
- Provide flexible billing schedules
- Calculate the recurring charges for shipping, handling, and storage
- Integrate completely with QuickBooks.
- Generate schedules automatically
- Avoid backorders and supply issues
By lowering labor costs and improving the billing and accounting functions, WMS software is highly beneficial. Organizations that want to upgrade or transition from manual processes will benefit from a WMS.
2. Automated Inventory Control Platforms
Are you still manually writing out inventory logging, stock take, or cycle counting? In 2018, Motorola reported that 41% of warehouses still relied on manual cycle counting. Luckily, times are changing. Nowadays, you have to embrace automated inventory control platforms, also called automated inventory management systems (IMS), or risk being left in the dust by the competition.
Some warehouse owners and managers might argue that manual is best because it's a tried-and-true method. However, the truth is that the method is filled with errors in data, inconsistency, and transcription headaches that will lead to ongoing disruptions of your operations.
When you implement an inventory control platform, you can automate all stock counting and enjoy data synthesis in real-time. Your reporting will be accurate and, best of all, you can even access it remotely! IMS streamlines your supply chain management and is a must-have software technology for any 3PL.
3. Automated Picking Tools
Picking technology has gone from paper to radio frequency (RF) with huge productivity and accuracy improvements. In warehouses with high-volume and extensive labor, picking is performed by material handling equipment such as put-to-light automated storage along with retrieval systems (ASRS), which feature goods-to-man efficiency.
Warehouses achieve near-perfect picking rates with automated picking elements.
You’ll encounter a variety of tech picking elements with almost perfect picking rates when your 3PL uses automated picking elements.
Automated picking tools include:
- Voice automated picking
- Pick-to-light systems
- Put-to-light systems
Picking becomes faster with improved labor allocation. It also reduces human error.
With automated picking, workers no longer have to manually examine pick tickets. Manual examination often caused human errors and lost efficiency.
A pick-to-light system is one of the leading order fulfillment technologies that help improve picking efficiency and accuracy. It can also help reduce labor costs. Best of all, pick-to-light is completely paperless, so virtually error-free. The system uses alphanumeric displays with buttons at the storage locations. The systems help guide employees with light-assisted manual picking, sorting, putting, and assembling.
Put-to-light is the inverse of pick-to-light. It reverses the flow and helps guide operators who are organizing incoming goods.
Pick-to-light and put-to-light benefits include:
- Improved accuracy: workers no longer have to rely on manual methods to figure out the location to pick and place orders and items. This ensures less likelihood of errors.
- Increased Productivity: Research has shown that the pick-to-light system will increase the 3PL’s productivity by 30 to 50%.
- Lower training costs: The pick-to-light and put-to-light systems are intuitive and easy to use. Training of employees takes only 30 to 45 minutes in most cases.
Voice Automated Picking
With voice automation (also referred to as voice-directed warehousing or speech-based picking), picking becomes a hands-free system that is also eyes-free. The system relies on an intelligent voice agent coupled with speech recognition software that effortlessly directs associates so they can complete their tasks. The voice directs the warehouse workers on picking locations and items to select. The picking method is completely paperless.
Voice-directed picking technologies are projected to grow rapidly and become very in-demand by third-party logistics providers due to the system’s efficiency and productivity gains. Research markets project that voice picking solutions will grow by 15.3% per year. By 2025, it should reach $2.9 billion.
The system combines real-time communications, interactive voice responses, and speech synthesis, which all work together to optimize the warehouse operations. You’ll enjoy reduced employee training time, greater productivity, and excellent accuracy thanks to the technologies.
Warehouse workers can move quickly when voice picking and use their hands to lift or perform other tasks. Pickers' hands are completely free for other activities with voice automation. They can read and hit buttons and still be focused on selecting the right items.
When using voice picking automation, the warehouse worker dons a lightweight headset that features an attached microphone. The mic connects via mobile, which uses a voice application that tells the warehouse worker where to go to pick and what to pick. The picker states a reference number, and the system then uses speech recognition software for location. If the verbal information is incorrect, then the application will state corrections.
Voice applications also feature complementary technologies like radio frequency identification (RFID) devices and barcode scanners.
How Does Voice Picking Work?
Let’s examine exactly how voice picking automation works:
- The warehouse worker uses a voice picking device linked to a headset, microphone, and barcode scanner.
- The customers’ orders are imported from the WMS by the picking system. The orders are then recorded, sequenced, and processed after release.
- The voice device then directs the warehouse worker by detailing the picking task and item location.
- The work can also feed information into the system via voice, barcode scanner, or text entry.
- Once an operator arrives at the warehouse location, they can then verbally offer confirmation digits to further verify location and bin.
- The voice picking system will confirm the section and aisle along with the pick quantity. The operator can then further confirm quantity via verbal instructions.
- Once the task is completed, the voice system sends the picker on to the next location by detailing the optimum path through the warehouse to further maximize efficiency and time.
- The interactions that occur between the voice application and the picker are all tracked so that warehouse management can see the progress of all of the orders as they are fulfilled.
Voice picking is a technology trend that is here to stay. It is valuable for warehouses of all sizes. However, voice picking is especially useful for large warehouses that have a high volume of assorted items that each have their own stock keeping unit (SKU) along with a scannable barcode. It is considered more cost-effective than pick-to-light, which is costly due to the expensive lighting requirements.
In warehouses that have heavy, sizable items, voice picking is especially useful because it frees up the picker's arms so they can lift heavy items, when necessary, with both hands such as to move tires. Another area where voice picking is beneficial is in cold or deep-freeze warehouses where workers wear gloves, which makes it hard to type on a keyboard or manage data input.
4. Automated Guided Vehicles
Automated guided vehicles are highly efficient mechanisms that can increase your storage and retrieval processes, loading, putaway, and stocktake. The AGVs are completely self-guided and can include pallet carts and forklifts in the warehouse. These devices are designed to follow digital paths and effortlessly weave their way through the warehouse to load and unload boxes, containers, and pallets.
Often referred to as self-guided vehicles or autonomous guided vehicles, AGVs travel autonomously throughout the warehouse without a driver or operator. They are favored for transporting raw materials like paper, plastic, metal, or rubber. They can be used to deliver materials from receiving to the warehouse without any human intervention, which ensures that the materials keep flowing without any interruptions.
AGVs can move materials throughout the warehouse from workstation to workstation. They provide repetitive and efficient movement. AGVs are typically used for inbound and outbound handling and picking.
Certain AGVs, such as those referred to as collaborative mobile robots, also assist in the picking process. They guide the warehouse operators through their tasks by helping to transport the picked orders to their respective packing and shipping workstations.
Without a doubt, AGVs are becoming extremely popular because they are easy to implement in a warehouse without needing to change your layout or systems. You can also expand your AGV fleet as needed to better meet the growth needs of your business.
Types of AGVs
Below are the most common types of AGVs used by 3PLs.
Automated Guided Carts
The most ordinary form of AGV is the automated guided cart with only minimal features. It has a navigation system that can range from magnetic tape to complex, sensor-based that relies on AI for navigation. They can effortlessly transport small items or large loaded pallets. These are used for sorting, storage, and cross-docking.
Forklift AGVs are designed to provide the same functions as a human-operated forklift, which includes the transportation of pallets, but they do not require a human operator.
A towing AGV, also called a tugger automatic guided vehicle, is used to pull one or more load-carrying, non-powered vehicles in a train-like fashion. They are often referred to as driverless trains. Basically, they function as towing vehicles that travel on wheels. They can transport heavy loads for extended distances and also stop at certain drop-off or pick-up locations throughout the warehouse.
Unit Load Handlers
The unit load handlers can carry individual objects or single units such as a tote or pallet.
Heavy Burden Carriers
As the name denotes, the heavy burden carrier can transport the heaviest loads. They often have self-loading capabilities and can pivot or feature omnidirectional steering.
Autonomous Mobile Robots
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are very advanced robotic units that have intelligent navigation capabilities (unlike other AGVs which rely on wires or magnetic tape). AMRs use camera systems and sensors that help them detect and avoid obstacles so they can navigate effortlessly through a warehouse using the most efficient and time-saving pathways.
5. IoT Implementation
Last on our list of the 5 top warehouse technology trends is the Internet of Things (IoT) which is a tech system that is made up of interrelated computing devices, digital machines, and people that all work together with unique identifiers (UIDs). The IoT lets data transfer over a network without needing human-to-computer or human-to-human interactions. It gives you the freedom to control all of the moving parts in your warehouse, so everything functions seamlessly.
With the IoT, you avoid costly mistakes, reduce risks, and avoid accidents that can cause a huge economic loss in the supply chain. IoT ensures the early detection of problems.
Sensors placed in the warehouse monitor working conditions such as the following:
- Environmental changes
The data collected flows from vehicles, shipping conveyances, and products. The monitoring also reduces the incidences of theft, spoilage, counterfeiting, and diversion.
The IoT system creates data synchronization via an easy-to-access network. You will enjoy greater inventory control and enhanced labor planning while providing a truly outstanding customer experience. Your processes are streamlined, and your turnaround time improved, which will put you on top of your game and help you gain the edge over your competitors.
A decade or more ago, all of these technology trends were dreams, and now they have become realities. If you want to take your third-party logistics to the next level and come out on top, then you’ll need to start the transition to the above tech tools.
At 3PL Central, an Extensiv company, we can help you break away from tedious paper-based processes with our WMS solution. Isn’t it time you streamlined your warehouse and became a true service leader? Contact us to learn more today!
Written by 3PL Central
The first cloud-based WMS solutions designed for 3PLs. Powerful, flexible, scalable, and specifically designed to help 3PLs and warehouses grow to the next level.