One of the most immediate commercial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic was consumers’ shift to online shopping, resulting in a surge in demand for eCommerce warehouse and distribution services. As warehouses tried to keep up with rising demands, they were simultaneously dealing with their own labor shortage, supply chain, and transportation issues, creating a host of ongoing challenges.
For warehouses to survive in a fast-changing and uncertain environment, flexibility is essential. The pandemic has forced companies to rethink and restructure their logistics operations. And many are choosing to implement warehouse automation solutions.
How COVID-19 Has Impacted Warehouse Automation
Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, logistics operations were already facing some serious challenges. Consumers were increasingly moving away from retail outlets in favor of online shopping, and many have come to expect next or even same-day delivery from sellers. Some of the key trends that are influencing a shift towards warehouse automation include:
1. Labor Issues
Prior to the pandemic, workers in warehouses and distribution centers faced the tough prospect of keeping up with a nearly impossible workload resulting from the shift in consumer demand to online retailers. Warehouses have notoriously high worker turnover rates. The use of automation solutions can take some of the stress off of these workers and even create a safer work environment.
2. Omni-channel Distribution
Omni-channel distribution refers to businesses that sell across a variety of channels, such as in-store, on a company website, and through online marketplaces like Amazon. This business model was already gaining traction before the pandemic, but it has become more so thanks to the convenience it provides to both businesses and consumers. At the same time, companies must rethink their distribution strategies to make them work.
3. eCommerce Dominance
Prior to 2020, eCommerce enjoyed steady growth as consumers realized the benefits of online shopping over other channels. But the pandemic accelerated the rate of eCommerce growth significantly, forcing warehouses to take a closer look at some of the changes they already knew were inevitable.
Warehouse Automation Solutions in Response to COVID-19
Every logistics provider knows that warehouses are costly to operate. Businesses that were dragging their feet about implementing improvements likely decided to move forward with upgrades in the past several years. Here are some of the top warehouse automation solutions companies are implementing in response to COVID-19:
1. Warehouse Management Systems
A warehouse management system (WMS) is the foundation for any automation solution. It is a software application, which can be cloud-based, that helps with day-to-day warehouse operations. The system integrates with other automation solutions and can help your business:
- Track inventory
- Direct picking, packing, and shipping activity
- Coordinate reverse logistics
- Track equipment and vehicles
2. Collaborative Robots
Collaborative robots, also referred to as “cobots,” are robots that work alongside human warehouse staff to increase efficiency and speed and reduce errors. One study by Darex found that these solutions increased warehouse efficiency by 30%. Cobots can be used in warehouses for things like picking, packing, inspecting, and palletizing.
3. Autonomous Mobile Robots and Automated Guided Vehicles
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) move around your warehouse without an onboard operator. They use sensors that decode and learn their environment to accomplish this. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) follow fixed routes on the ground and also have an onboard operator.
Both AMRs and AGVs are used in warehouses to complete repetitive and strenuous tasks.
Wearables became popular with consumers with the invention of the FitBit. But warehouses are now using more advanced wearable technology to increase efficiency and reduce costs. Some examples of these devices are GPS trackers, smart glasses, and finger-trigger gloves.
These devices are integrated with the WMS and provide real-time information about inventory and instructions to allow workers to get more done in less time with fewer distractions and errors.
5. Voice Picking
Similar to wearables, warehouse workers get verbal commands through a headset to fulfill orders instead of having to walk around with a clipboard. Voice picking systems are typically integrated with a WMS. Once the worker completes a task, they can confirm it through their headset and will be given the next set of instructions.
6. Predictive Maintenance
An efficient warehouse doesn’t wait until something is broken to address maintenance. Automation can help keep a closer eye on the systems that keep your operation running on all cylinders. Sensors monitor your equipment and notify you when readings fall outside established parameters. You’ll also receive reminders to perform necessary preventative maintenance. When maintenance or repairs are required, technology solutions are available that can walk a worker through the steps to get the job done quickly and correctly.
Many of today’s warehouses are using RFID tags to track inventory and improve visibility in the supply chain. These tags can be located on pallets, individual items, and pieces of warehouse machinery. Drones can fly around the warehouse to capture data in bins or shelves and record the information to the WMS in real-time. They can keep track of deliveries and item movements throughout the warehouse
8. Automated Picking, Storage, and Sorting Systems
Automated picking, storage, and sorting systems are solutions that remove the human labor element by identifying materials in the storage racks and diverting them to various areas throughout the warehouse. These systems can involve a combination of robots and conveyors to pick, pivot, drop, push, and move items from Point A to Point B. These are costly systems, but the benefits of using them are faster processing, less reliance on labor, and higher accuracy rates.
In the past, the supply chain and warehouse house industry has been slow to adopt automation technology. The sentiment of “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” prevailed for years. But it’s no longer a sustainable business model.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly impacted retailers and eCommerce businesses, it has also offered an opportunity to examine new ways to manage the supply chain and deliver products. With shifts in consumer preferences and the increased availability of warehouse automation solutions, businesses are in a better position to improve efficiency and overall results.