The ecommerce boom brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has permanently changed the retail landscape. While people have been shopping online for decades, it’s important to recognize that warehouses, as we know them, are still operating and organized to replenish the stock in brick-and-mortar stores. Furthermore, warehouse workforces are staffed for store restocking and are being stretched beyond their capacity to meet the demands of ecommerce.
Supply chain and logistics operations are still struggling to keep up with the changes and the consequences are painful, as we’ve seen from the holiday supply chain crisis of 2021. While we head into another holiday peak season, it’s clear change from the back end needs to happen in order to keep up with consumer demands on the front end.
Many warehouse operations are looking to technology to upgrade every facet of their daily operations. From digitization to automation, technological enhancements are closing the productivity gaps by dynamically mapping out the optimal placements for inventory, handling rote manual tasks and improving quality control and output levels.
Let’s take a look at how this plays out.
Warehouses are arguably the most analog sector of the retail ecosystem and face a high number of bottlenecks. Their inventory changes frequently over the years, but the way they operate stays the same. Software and smart technologies have traditionally been sparsely used and, for many warehouses, Excel spreadsheets are as advanced as they get. One reason is that warehouses are currently optimized for restocking traditional stores, a relatively simple process, and not ecommerce.
Fulfilling online orders is more complex and requires a lot more labor than brick-and-mortar retail store stock replenishment. Instead of shipping full cases of the same SKU to stores, now workers have to put together individual orders of random sets of items in quantities of just one or two at a time. On top of that, the mix of those SKUs changes every day, and it’s unpredictable. This means a lot more people are needed to walk through warehouses to retrieve those random items, all at a time when fewer people than ever in history are available for this type of work. Automation helps make this process much more efficient and multiplies productivity per person.
Automation systems can simply start with software that optimizes existing workforces. Machine learning is used to analyze customer orders and find common patterns. The system can then intelligently instruct operators where to position inventory based on those patterns so it can be retrieved more quickly.
For workers on the floor, the automated systems also will be able to calculate the most efficient paths to take through the warehouse to locate ordered goods. Through sophisticated algorithms, the system can use batching to have people retrieve items for multiple orders that are stored near each other. This exponentially increases the number of orders that can be fulfilled each day. Those batches then get sorted into individual orders during the packout process. Beyond software, warehouses that are looking for that next step in efficiency can find it in the form of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
One of the biggest misconceptions about automation is that it’s here to replace people. The truth is that it’s here to help and ultimately make jobs easier. Currently, warehouse workers spend almost half of their day walking around the warehouse to gather items for order packout. Not only are they walking up and down aisles, they’re also pulling and lifting totes off shelves. Even with smart software that tells them where to go, this hard manual labor ends up leaving many employees with debilitating musculoskeletal injuries and major burnout.
AMRs can mitigate these problems by autonomously executing most of the manual walking, reaching and lifting tasks for employees. By handling these tasks, warehouses are able to increase productivity levels up to five times over manual processes and increase accuracy too. These may look different from the robots we see on Westworld or the ones that can do backflips on YouTube, but these little robots can operate with machine precision and are programmed with AI software to only pick the specific item(s), in the right place and within the right amount. Performing the same tasks without distractions or breaks while being impervious to chronic injuries, robots are an ideal solution for manual tasks like picking and replenishment.
Unlike machines, people need breaks, and we do our best work when we’re allowed to work in bursts, as illustrated by the Pomodoro Technique. While robots are handling the rote and arduous tasks, people in the warehouse are able to spend time and energy on higher-order tasks that require decision-making and problem-solving skills. As our country faces a labor shortage, warehouse managers are able to supplement their limited workforces with robots, with one robot being able to do the rote work of up to five workers. As the demand for ecommerce grows, people and robots will be able to work together in parallel collaboration and meet the need for quick turnaround rates.
While the future of ecommerce constantly evolves and year-round peak seasons bring newfound change, we are becoming more equipped to rely on technology to meet consumer needs and create customer satisfaction with a quick fulfillment time.
As ecommerce continues to pick up speed, it’s more important than ever for the supply chain industry to pick up the pace. Pretty soon peak season could end up being something that’s year-round, and if a seasonal crisis was bad, a year-round supply chain crisis would be even more painful. Automation technology can provide a holistic solution that points the industry in the right direction with intelligent software and AMRs that handle the walking and heavy lifting.
In the face of a possible recession and ongoing labor shortage, automation has the potential to help warehouses everywhere modernize and ramp up their quality control and output. Seamless operations in the backend will lead to successful customer experiences, and the retail industry will become the well-oiled machine it’s meant to be.
Lior Elazary is the CEO and Co-founder ofinVia Robotics, with more than 20 years of experience as an executive in internet networking, robotics, software development and enterprise architecture businesses. He has led and directed diverse teams developing everything from back-office systems to core enterprise technologies. At inVia, Elazary helps to drive the company’s mission to automate repetitive tasks so people can spend time doing more fulfilling work. inVia Robotics builds warehouse technology that automates ecommerce fulfillment using AI-powered software and fleets of mobile robots.