It’s official: COVID-19 has changed consumer shopping habits forever. Last year, e-commerce grew 42%, with $813 billion reportedly being spent online. And in the first two months of 2021, consumers spent $121 billion online, resulting in year-over-year growth of 34%.
What does this mean for warehouse operators? For starters, it shows the urgent need for technology applications that can help them get products to consumers faster and more efficiently. In a survey of small- and medium-sized warehouse operators, conducted by BizTechInsights on behalf of Zebra, 55% of respondents said they were planning to transform their operations to gain real-time guidance, improve decision-making and ensure that their performance was data-driven. One type of technology helping warehouse operators meet these new demands is real-time location systems (RTLS).
RTLS gives warehouse operators greater visibility into their assets, ranging from inventory and lift trucks to pick carts and even autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). The technology goes further than traditional barcodes, using sensors to collect data without requiring line of sight.
RTLS encompasses a wide range of location technologies, from Bluetooth beacons and passive radio frequency identification (RFID) to full-scale systems that support constant communications between tagged assets and back-end processes. Many warehouse operators are choosing to deploy a combination of location-based technologies to meet their needs in a cost-effective manner.
Tracking assets within warehouse walls, RTLS technology creates systems of reality that help operators determine where their assets are, and how efficiently they’re being managed. In picking operations, for example, arming workers with a combination of location-based and wearable technologies allows pickers to fulfill orders faster, pick multiple orders at once, replenish products in between picks, and prioritize urgent orders.
Wearable heads-up displays that integrate with the warehouse management system (WMS) allow workers to fulfill orders faster by giving them step-by-step visual picking instructions that point them directly to the right bin. When a picker is done picking an order in Bin A, the WMS can use the picker’s location to find the next closest order.
If a nearby order isn't available, the system can direct the picker to do a quick cycle count in the next closest bin, or begin replenishing items. The WMS could also send a collaborative robot, or cobot, to the picker’s location, to pick up a completed order or deliver returns for restocking in that aisle.
Given that up to 60% of a picker’s time is spent walking, such time savings can quickly add up and result in a significant increase in the number of orders picked each day.
Passive RFID systems offer an affordable way to automate operations such as inbound and outbound processing. RFID systems eliminate the need for manually scanning each product’s barcode when a shipment arrives or leaves.
Instead, entire pallets containing dozens of tagged products can be automatically scanned in seconds as the pallet passes a fixed RFID reader installed near the dock door. Workers can also use mobile handheld readers to quickly scan an entire pallet, versus individually scanning each item's barcode. The collected data is automatically uploaded to the WMS or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, and compared against advanced shipping notices or shipping logs to check accuracy.
RTLS technology also helps improve inventory accuracy by delivering better visibility into the location of inventory as it enters the warehouse, is moved to a storage location, or leaves the warehouse. Operators are finding that with greater accuracy, they can dramatically reduce out-of-stocks (OOS), which have long plagued the industry. According to NielsenIQ, OOS in just 10 product categories, ranging from toilet paper and cleaning supplies to dog food, cost U.S. retailers more than $3 billion in lost sales from May 2020 to February 2021.
Across the globe, warehouses are adopting these real-world applications in ever-increasing numbers, thanks in large measure to changes in cost that are making them much more affordable. Now, companies of all sizes can gain much-needed efficiencies in their warehouse and supply chain operations.
When integrated with back-end systems, RTLS technology helps warehouse operators improve internal operations and quickly react to supply-chain disruptions.
Integrated, intelligent RTLS solutions go beyond just data collection. They also help warehouse operators use that data to keep operations running smoothly. For instance, say a truck scheduled for a particular dock door is stuck and will arrive two hours late, but staging has already begun in anticipation of its arrival. The obvious question is: how quickly can the warehouse yard team pivot?
When RTLS technology is integrated with the transportation management system (TMS) and yard management system (YMS), the warehouse team is notified when a truck will arrive late, allowing employees to use analytics to adapt to the new reality. With prescriptive analytics, warehouse operators can immediately determine which truck should be directed to the scheduled dock door instead, so that the shipment can still get out on time.
Previously, warehouse managers had to deal with these situations manually. But today’s RFID solutions do more than just tell them that something that might affect operations has changed. The RFID data is integrated with back-end systems, and gives front-line workers specific directions on how to quickly adapt to those changes.
That’s why 46% of the warehouse operators in the recent BizTechInsights survey say the most important feature of a modern warehouse system is the ability to integrate it with existing warehouse applications.
The days of printing out a paper pick list or relying on paper shipping logs are over. Nevertheless, implementing the right technology remains a struggle for warehouse operators. Fifty-seven percent of respondents to the BizTechInsights survey say their biggest challenge is ensuring their workers have the right tech tools to operate efficiently and accurately.
The good news is that RTLS technology, particularly when combined with back-end software systems and wearable solutions such as heads-up displays and ring scanners, helps workers do their jobs more efficiently. It also enables them to quickly identify and solve problems. So it’s no surprise that these tools are becoming increasingly popular with warehouse operators of all sizes.
John Wirthlin is industry principal for manufacturing, transportation and logistics at Zebra Technologies.
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