Emerging technologies are offering new ways to solve today's distribution challenges—disruptions caused by a shortage of labor, higher customer expectations and the shift to smaller, more frequent, just-in-time orders that are driving more each picking in the distribution center. These innovations are making it possible to increase productivity and efficiency, reduce dependence on labor and provide greater flexibility to scale operations up or down as the needs of the business change. -Roger Counihan, Emerging Technologies Strategist, Fortna
New technologies, including material movement robots, collaborative robots (co-bots), autonomous picking bots, augmented reality for vision picking, drones for inventory cycle counting and others, can help solve some of distribution’s greatest challenges. Forward-thinking companies are embracing them and seeing promising results from their pilot efforts:
There are also some more mature technologies that are currently being under-utilized, including robotic depalletizers, palletizers, truck loaders, right-sizing solutions and multi-shuttle goods-to-person systems.
Behind these new and very promising technologies is advanced software that enables machines to make decisions and vision systems and sensors that help in executing tasks with greater precision and dexterity.
Machine learning allows bots and autonomous vehicles to make better decisions about the best route, the best way to pick up an item, the most efficient process, etc., in order-optimized processes. Warehouse execution systems (WES) enable the distribution center to prioritize orders on-the-fly and optimize the work flow across people, processes, systems and equipment.
The real value of these technologies comes from the integration of an overall end-to-end solution that marries the right technologies and advanced software in an operations design that maximizes the business case.
For those who are ready to dip a toe in the water, it may be best to identify a non-critical point challenge. Firms can learn about the latest technologies in a number of ways, but often it’s possible to go straight to the source and speak directly to the chief technology officer or roboticist at a start-up venture. They may be willing to help solve a specific problem in exchange for the opportunity to pilot or showcase their technology. Start with a small pilot that can be carefully controlled and easily measured to determine whether a broader application of the technology is warranted.
What does the distribution center of the future look like? It’s likely to include more than a few robots and autonomous vehicles with machine learning algorithms helping to make smarter, better decisions. But humans won’t be entirely out of the picture. There will be a fair number of them working alongside, managing and maintaining the machines that do the heavy lifting.
There’s a justifiable business case for emerging technologies within a distribution center. Many companies are already piloting or implementing these technologies and projecting an ROI. Over the next 3 to 5 years, we’ll see even greater adoption and maturity in what are now new technologies. Prices continue to come down on robots, sensors, CPUs and communications while capabilities continue to increase. As availability of labor dwindles, customer expectations rise and technology evolves, it will be critical for companies to adopt these emerging technologies.
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