We have spent a lot of time recently singing the praises and discussing the challenges of blockchain in the supply chain industry.
But the wealth of hard-charging technologies making their way to the forefront of the industry are hardly limited to the world of smart contacts and cryptographic algorithms.
Industry 4.0 – the clever term for the fourth industrial revolution in manufacturing – is launching companies forwards into the realm of smart, autonomous systems powered by data and Machine Learning (ML) – a sub-discipline of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Warehousing has long been a world apart in the supply chain industry. It operates as its own little ecosystem with its own language, visual system, and terminology. While picking and packing aren’t going away, the way that these and other basic fundamentals of this part of the supply chain function are in the midst of a major-league upgrade that will lead to less manual labor, less time sink into searching out products, quicker time from purchase to delivery, and much better customer service.
Here’s a closer look at several of the warehouse-specific technologies that are driving Industry 4.0.
The Internet of Things (IoT): Slowly but surely making its way into the common vernacular, the IoT is the centerpiece of a warehouse’s digital transformation. With sensors in place on every piece and product that is manufactured, companies suddenly have visibility at a scale that previous generations could only dream of. Not only does it allow a company to see what’s in stock and where it is in the system, but sensors can also be programmed to report additional data, such as the temperature of their surroundings. If products are not meant to be stored above or below certain temperatures while being transported, these types of sensors can report flaws in the supply chain and expedite getting them fixed.
Voice picking: Also known as voice-directed warehousing, this watershed technology can direct warehouse workers to the exact location of the object they require using augmented speech recognition. It can replace scanning barcodes, filling informs, or learning a complex or antiquated computer system, dramatically reducing the time spent between getting a request for an object and having hands on said object.
Vision picking: If you thought voice picking sounds like some George Jetson-esque futuristic technology, take a look at vision picking. It uses augmented reality (AR) with a form of goggles/head-mounted display camera to insert graphic images into a human worker’s field of vision. If you’ve ever played Pokemon Go or watched one of the Terminator movies that shows the cybernetic organism’s field of vision, you get the basic idea. Vision picking shows a view of the physical objects in front of a person with enhanced data pop-ups such as barcode information, navigation routes to the item requested, and automatic updates to the warehouse database as products are added or removed from their sites.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID): RFID devices are starting to replace barcode scanners when it comes to taking stock of a company’s inventory. Instead of a paper label that is affixed to each product or package, those objects are given a digital tag that is populated with key data by radio waves. RFIDs are tied to an automated scanning system which records each object’s information into the company’s system. This reduces time lost when paper barcodes are inevitably lost, torn, damaged, or fail to scan for one of a hundred other reasons. RFID does not encounter any of these problems.
Warehouse management systems (WMS): All of the previous items on this list are wonderful in their own space, but can be combined to perform like a virtuoso symphony using an WMS. This digital platform has the power to manage, view, and capture a vast host of data from all parts of a warehouse’s operation. Most come equipped with ML capabilities that not only collate the data, but then analyse it to detect friends, find areas of opportunity for improvement, and suggest actionable decisions to improve functionality across the board. It’s not as good as a smart warehouse manager on your team, but it’s like giving him a trusty sidekick who can call up any data set at the press of a button.
What Does Your Warehouse Need?
It’s very tempting to put money into new technology because “it’s available” or because ‘everyone else has it.” But neither of those is a viable reason to invest money in a new system or the time spent installing it and training up your employees. Before you decide on any hardware or software upgrades, you first need to determine what your pain points are and what goals you would like to have accomplished.
Once you’ve got your wants and needs established, it’s time to research what technology is available to solve those needs, including automation, IoT, warehouse management software, and more. You may find that solving all your problems is more of an investment than your firm can handle right now, which will mean building your new warehouse piecemeal based on what’s most essential.
There are plenty of firms that can take a tour of your current setup and recommend/estimate what needs to be done versus what you want and what you can afford.
Your company can use those estimates to build time and investment models using your internal resources and your external findings to construct a plan that will begin your warehouse revolution.
Not every new technology is necessary to make your warehouse reach peak efficiency at maximum cost savings. Getting a plan in place to establish what limitations your enterprise is currently fighting against is the first step towards realizing what innovations can best serve the future of your warehouse, which will have a positive ripple effect through your entire supply chain and your company as a whole.