The Future of Warehousing - Global Trade Magazine
  August 10th, 2021 | Written by

The Future of Warehousing

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  • As Amazon recognized, automation is the silver bullet when it comes to boosting a warehouse’s operations.
  • Drones are expected to have a significant role in the future of warehousing, specifically in aiding inventory control.
  • Alibaba recently fully automated its stocking and shipping warehouses in China.

In September of 2018, Forbes Insights published a survey of 400 senior haulage executives. They reported that more than two-thirds of the respondents believed seismic changes had to occur within the logistics sector, otherwise its warehouses would risk not being able to facilitate the growing demand for freight delivery.

Three years and a global pandemic later, and demand for warehouses is higher than ever. So how has the industry endured this tumultuous period? The simple answer is greater investment in technology! Innovators within warehousing have continued to incorporate intuitive software into their models to cut costs, speed up delivery time and improve efficiency.

With this trend of incorporating technologies into the haulage sector only set to continue, the mind boggles at what warehouses could be capable of in the future. To that end let’s unravel the warehouse innovations set to be introduced in the coming years and what the biggest names are doing today to ensure they won’t be left behind.

Warehousing the Amazon way

We would be remiss not to mention Amazon in a discussion about the future of warehousing. After all, their network accounts for over 150 million square feet of warehouse space across the globe.

The company has, since its emergence in the ‘90s, being trailblazers for cutting-edge warehousing models. In the mid-2000s they popularized fulfillment centers whereby sellers could leverage the vast network of warehouses Amazon had to store, pack and ship their customer’s orders for the same standardized fee – no matter where an item was being sent.

Since then, many warehouses have attempted to adopt something similar to the Fulfilment By Amazon (FBA) program and offer to not only store their client’s products but package and deliver them as well. However, none have been able to even rival the FBA. Namely because of one very appealing benefit that FBA offers sellers: Prime eligibility.

This legacy of advancement was further solidified by the recent announcement that Amazon was opening its first robotics fulfillment center in Alberta, Canada. The automated warehouse, slated to open in 2022, is the result of almost a decade-long investment.

In 2012, Amazon purchased robotics company Kiva Systems for $775 million which gave them ownership of a new fleet of mobile robots which were capable of carrying shelves of products from worker to worker and intuitively navigate a warehouse according to barcodes on the floor. Like the FBA program, it’s expected that many warehouses will use Amazon as inspiration and invest in some form of robotics to aid with automation.

Automation for all

As Amazon recognized, automation is the silver bullet when it comes to boosting a warehouse’s operations. Having a workforce that never tires, runs 24/7, and provides a near-perfect output is invaluable. It’s likely that every stage of warehouse infrastructures will have some form of automation in the next few years if they haven’t already.

Drones are expected to have a significant role in the future of warehousing, specifically in aiding inventory control. MIT conducted research in 2017 where they programmed drones to fly above a warehouse floor to read RFID tags from more than ten meters away. The study was a success with the drones only having a 19cm margin of error.

There are currently some safety concerns delaying the immediate integration of drones in warehousing but the continual developments of the technology suggest that we’re not too far away from seeing them introduced.

Automated conveyors and sortation systems have been staples of warehouse infrastructures for decades, now experts are predicting that a third system will become part of every warehouse’s arsenal. The ARC advisory group’s warehouse automation and AS/RS research forecasts that the shuttle systems market is going to grow exponentially.

For context, a warehouse shuttle system is a mobile cart that transports items in pallet racking. It replaces the need for an operative to use a forklift to retrieve stock totes, trays, or cases in a storage buffer. The system, which is also being touted as an essential by various trade groups, provides warehouses with high throughput, scalability, and storage density.

Considering that repetitive tasks can be mechanized fairly easily, there’s plenty of reasons to be excited for what other types of automation could be introduced into warehouse infrastructures and the benefits that they will no doubt yield.

Big Data & AI

Big data and machine learning have revolutionized many industries since their proliferation in the early 2000s and it’s expected to do the same to warehousing.

Order and inventory accuracy, as well as fulfillment time, are all Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that could be improved through the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI can also evaluate more general drivers that may affect a warehouse’s overall performance including safety, facility damages, and employee productivity. Using this aggregated data AI is able to start automating tasks, collecting the necessary information, and making decisions on its own.

Some industry leaders have already made the transition and began using AI. For example, Alibaba recently fully automated its stocking and shipping warehouses in China by using robots controlled by a sophisticated machine learning algorithm.

Further down the line, many experts believe that more advanced metrics will come into play as well, such as predictive analytics which will give operators a helping hand when it comes to forecasting and drive smarter decision making in the warehouse’s overall operations. Predictive analytics will help with evaluating demand for warehouse space, planning inventory location, responding to supply chain issues, and reducing risks associated with more complex supplier networks.

It’s clear to see that the prospects for warehousing in the near future are bright with plenty of exciting technology currently in use and on the horizon. The industry’s willingness to constantly evolve is truly admirable, with interest in big data, automation, innovative models, and AI at an all-time high. We should all be very excited about the future of warehousing.