Like many other industries, warehousing is being completely transformed by advances in technology and new workplace trends.
And where warehousing goes, related spaces like retail, supply chain management, and transportation will follow. The capabilities of warehouses to store, organize, track, pick and pack, and ship out inventory determine how efficient and effective the world’s biggest businesses can be.
As e-commerce continues to grow and add to the billion-dollar retail business’ bottom line, those changes are happening quickly.
If your business relies on warehouse management—whether you’re in the industry directly or your inventory spends time in a warehouse at any point—you’ll want to keep your eye on these new and emerging trends.
Some of these trends have just come to fruition in the last year or so, while others are slated to make an impact in the years to come. Either way, you should be aware and prepared for the future of warehousing.
The power of businesses to analyze massive amounts of data is matched only by their ability to collect it. “Big Data” is a term that refers to massively large data sets that businesses can analyze computationally to reveal larger patterns and trends that might not be obvious to the human eye.
This power to collect data comes from advances in tools like barcode scanners and RFID scanners. Some of the biggest companies, like Amazon and Wal-Mart, use the humble but flexible and expanding-in-capability barcode scanner to collect information from every item that passes through their warehouses.
Barcodes hold more data than ever before thanks to maturation in the 2D barcode label space, and now warehouse workers can glean valuable information like origin, destination, photographs, price, stock levels, and more with just the scan of the code.
As a result, businesses are better able to see what items are flying off the shelves at different times of year, how best to balance their inventory turnover ratio, and examine what operations could be streamlined to their fullest capacity.
From wearable barcode scanners (on fingers, wrists, and perhaps eventually glasses) to devices that track movement over the course of a shift, companies are increasingly investing in technology that delivers them as much information as possible.
Related Article: Android vs Windows in the WarehouseBig data isn’t just about tracking inventory trends. If employees wear Fitbits and other devices, they can see how efficiently their employees move around the warehouse, when they may need to take breaks, what routes they could take to arrive at a shelf faster, and how their automated vehicles and equipment (more on that below) can join the stream of movement without disruption.
The rise of autonomous machines
Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) are the next step in turning warehouses into ever-more efficient inventory management hubs.
Everything from stackers, forklifts, pallet trucks, and even inventory-carrying robots like Kiva and Fetch robots are revolutionizing how work gets done in warehouses.
We are still quite a ways from truly autonomous machines that can pick and pack with the best of humanity, but advances are being made to move inventory from trucks to shelves, or around warehouses, around-the-clock. This boost to efficiency will result in untold multiplications of work output.
And though these advances in technology may worry humans, it’s clear that at least in the near future, people will still be needed to handle more delicate tasks, as well as perform upkeep and oversight of the AGVs. Humans won’t lose their jobs, necessarily; the jobs will change.
Speaking of changing jobs, the changing of hands from the Boomer generation and Generation X to Millennials will mark a change in how warehouses are managed and led going forward.
Of course, a lot of what Millennials bring to the table isn’t unique to their generation. It’s possible to be in your 40s, 50s, 60s or even older and be comfortable with technology, big data analysis, and diversity.
But as a generation that grew up with a lot of the the technology and tools in use in warehouses today—smartphones and tablets, particularly those powered by Android; cloud computing; augmented and virtual reality—Millennials are uniquely poised to launch warehouses into the next generation of technology advances and efficiency.
Additionally, Millennials will bring a sense of environmental and social consciousness to warehousing (the use of greener materials and more transparent supply chain management) as well as a comfort with being “always on” that warehouses may require.
Assuming your organization can recruit Millennials to your fold, you’ll likely be pleased with the results, and so will they.
Another area where Millennials and their like-minded generational counterparts may shine is in their adoption of blockchain into warehousing operations.
Blockchain can potentially affect warehousing in a number of ways. We discussed this topic at length in a recent post, but in terms of how it’s currently being used, smaller companies are using smart contracts and processing payments in a clear and public way to avoid disputes.
Larger companies with efficient warehouses will be able to more efficiently integrate blockchain practices and technologies that promote transparency, scalability, better real-time access, and lower costs per transaction.
This seems like an obvious one—so many businesses in the modern world rely in some way on cloud computing and applications, from work processing to communication to the Internet of Things. How could warehousing not be undergoing a similar transformation?
The truth is, IoT and cloud computing meant a lot less in previous years to warehouses than you might think. Warehouses in many cases were self-contained ecosystems that were primarily concerned with what was currently on their shelves, and little else.
Now with the rise of a global supply chain and the need to track packages from origin to the doorstep, warehouses need to stay connected to every other link to the chain. The best way to keep everyone on the same page is to use cloud computing, which updates seamlessly with every barcode scan, database change, reorder, and more.
Rethinking the warehouse itself
When we think of a warehouse, we probably all see something remarkably similar. It likely looks like a big square building with lots of shelves inside—would you agree?
But the warehouse itself is set to undergo some massive aesthetic, logistical, and even geographic changes.
For one thing, warehouses are going up en masse around the country and world. As humanity’s insatiable need for new and exciting stuff only increases, and ease of purchasing through e-commerce and via mobile devices adds to the deluge, companies are realizing they need more space than ever.
They also need it closer to major urban centers than before. The most troublesome and costly part of delivering a package to a consumer is “the last mile,” and warehouses are looking to close that gap by building closer to the people they’re delivering to.
As new warehouses are being built and older ones retrofitted for new challenges, design changes include column spacing, ceiling height, and materials that promote sustainability.
Finally, it’s possible that warehouses themselves won’t even be “in buildings.” Amazon has filed patents for some wild new warehouse designs, including in blimps, underwater, and underground. Hey, what’s the use of all that good ocean water if we can’t put our stuff in it?
New trends in warehousing are emerging as quickly as new trends in technology and workplace efficiency are. Expect to see the advent of these trends accelerate with new discoveries and bold new directions in business.
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