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Mark Wheeler, director of supply chain solutions with Zebra Technologies Corp., lays out the factors that are driving businesses to modernize their warehouses, in response to the age of e-commerce.
SCB: What are the big factors that are driving businesses to modernize their warehouses today?
Wheeler: On the I.T. side, the industry as a whole is in the midst of a transition from legacy operating system such as Windows Mobile CE. That user experience goes back 50 years to terminals that are being emulated in many warehouses, even today. But they have to move to support a newer operating system, and for the vast majority of the industry, that’s Android. They need to get live on that, and about half the industry has made the move already. We expect the majority of the rest of the industry to achieve it by the end of 2019.
On the operations side, we're in a tough labor environment. We recently completed a vision survey that said that on average, it takes about six weeks to train a new employee in the warehouse and bring them up to productivity. It’s really between four and eight weeks. So operations is looking for applications and user experiences that are intuitive, touch-based, and easy to learn. We know that when new employees come in the door, they’re accustomed to using touch-based devices and having a touch user experience. So we need to deliver that for the operations teams.
SCB: Judging from the experiences of companies up to now with technology, I wonder if they even get to the operations part easily. The first part you mentioned, the shift to Android, seems to be enough to stop a facility in its tracks. Does that become such a big issue that it has to be done before anything else can be considered?
Wheeler: They’re interdependent, of course. You’ve got to talk to your WMS provider, and find out what its roadmap is for native Android support. Most of the leading WMS providers will have that today. And the next question is, does that really line up to your business? If you’re required to move to a newer version, does that align with your roadmap?
SCB: Let's assume that all that came off somehow, and we managed to get to the operations part. A lot of warehouses and facilities are dealing with the staffing issue. They're having trouble getting enough people. And they're turning to automation in order to make up for that lack. So what are some of the challenges there, especially in e-commerce?
Wheeler: The first thing is that we need to be able to make our human workers as effective, productive and accurate as they can be. And that means paying close attention to workflow and ergonomics. As we bring in more mechanized solutions, we need to pay attention to how are we enabling humans and the robots, and if it's a cobotic implementation, to enable interaction. We can have printers and scanners and other things integrated into the mobile robots as needed.
SCB: In the world of e-commerce, that obviously means managing the omnichannel. A lot of facilities are being tasked to do everything within the same four walls. How are they handling that?
Wheeler: Our fulfillment vision survey addressed this directly. About nine out of 10 — basically all the brick-and-mortar retailers — said they’re planning to leverage their existing facilities and inventory to fulfill online demand. We saw significant progress in the 2018 holiday season in terms of the number of lines that retailers were able to fulfill from their store-based inventories.
Of course, that requires two things. It requires mobile workflows in the stores that they didn't have before, along with warehouse levels of support and investment. It also requires very good location-level inventory accuracy in the store, because if I don't know what I have, I can't allocate and ship it. That's what's driving the growing adoption of item-level RFID in the retail environment. And it's slowly pushing back into the supply chain. We now have tools where you can have complete and constant visibility to tagged merchandise over large areas of the warehouse.
SCB: All of this is generating immense amounts of data. How can it be handled in the warehouse?
Wheeler: If you look at the way warehouse management systems have historically run, it involves what I call glimpses of reality that may be wrong. It's a barcode scan — we assume we know what that scan means, and most of the time we're right, but sometimes we're not. That's why we have inventory errors, and missed shipments, and all those things that happen in a warehouse every day. So we want to move toward leveraging all this sensor technology and analytics, and not make assumptions based on approximations. We're doing that with all kinds of edge technology. The challenge, though, is assimilating and analyzing all the data. Then you’ve got to be able to close the loop and take action in real time.
SCB: In today’s world of e-commerce and warehousing, what would you describe as the single biggest challenge that facilities have to overcome?
Wheeler: It’s being responsive not just to the market as it is today, but to one that’s dynamic and evolving. You need a degree of flexibility and responsiveness. Flexibility usually doesn't come free, but you have to be able to plan for it. We have to reassess what a warehouse management system is, and how it does what it does, from the old model of scanning the barcode. We've done a really good job with those solutions over the years, but we could do so much more now with sensor technology and analytics.
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