Achieving excellence in the supply chain is a goal that's become something of a moving target in the wake of the omnichannel movement, forcing operational managers to learn and use new skills on the fly. Even with confidence and years of experience to their name, managers often long for the simpler days before the digital revolution added a hundred extra moving parts to logistics and warehouse planning. Thankfully, new trends can be a transformative experience that eliminates many frustrations — provided the right solutions for a given workflow are used.
Automation and forecasting are the two best strategies for a logistics-weary professional trying to optimize their warehouse, and, thankfully, there are a number of innovations available that cater to both.
Automation Within the Warehouse
While it will require some investment, larger-scale automation can completely change the efficiency targets of a warehouse for the better. Whether it's employing smart layout and floor path designs or going truly cutting edge with a new business-wide technology strategy, there are a lot of potential opportunities to reduce the stresses of logistical management.
Even with the wealth of data available on the subject, some warehouses still resist critical assessments of their floor plans and workflows, which is a very costly mistake. Not all trends in the warehouse need ongoing technology investments, after all, and smart design is one of them.
Examining the steps an employee must take from order receipt to shipping completion will typically reveal a lot of inconsistencies and room for improvement. Ask your employees — they're the ones with boots on the ground, after all — to recommend automation for their most prominent workflow pain points. You may find that a process doesn't necessarily need human oversight to work or that relying on human oversight is producing an unacceptable margin of error. Once the actual hand-to-product problems are identified and addressed, move on to warehouse-wide solutions to further tighten up your approach.
Smart Shelving and Products
At the item level, both shelves and the skus themselves can be made "smart" — the former with digitally-divided shelving that senses weight and presence and the former with the inclusion of RFID tags that broadcast arrival, position and departure. Using technology like this can also simplify the demands of an increasingly transparent fulfillment chain, allowing retail-level chain partners to tap into real-time inventory data that's highly accurate. Additionally, this inventory feed can be used to automate refill-type orders for up-chain fulfillment companies, allowing actual stock movement to dictate order levels without the potential for human error.
According to TechCrunch's John Biggs, the latest leap forward into the future of warehouse technology comes from above — notably, airborne drones within the warehouse. Capable of ultra-fine maneuvering and automated flight plans, these powerful flying robots can actually take inventory without the need for man-hour cost. While periodic inventories are an excellent perk for keeping a warehouse running smoothly, it's the pre-pick opportunities that are truly valuable here.
Drones, obviously, aren’t going to be a solution for every warehouse manager — at least not yet — larger sku-holding companies, such as Amazon and Walmart, are incorporating them in increasing numbers. Though a human employee will likely always need to be present for managing the drones, using machines instead of other humans for picking is smart on many levels. With a mostly-automated "workforce," the risk of on-site injuries dwindles considerably, and efficiency-robbing but necessary considerations like meal and bathroom breaks are all but eliminated.
Digital Supply Chain Cooperation
Sometimes, problems in your warehouse don't necessarily manifest under your roof. You can inherit them from further up the supply chain. When moving through your critical assessment of in-house workflows, don't neglect receiving. If your team is unsure of what to expect and when to expect it, all the planning in the world can't take inefficiency out of the picture.
Sit down with your supply chain partners and discuss protocols for signaling shipments, including automated tracking number hand-off and using familiar 3PL companies to transfer product back and forth. Using the same 3PL providers across the supply chain can translate to substantial volume shipping discounts and even encourage your 3PL partner to integrate shipping data into your own proprietary management systems. If determining stock status and order updates takes endless emails or phone calls in your current interactions with a supply chain partner, automation initiatives are likely overdue.
Forecasting Within the Warehouse
Finding and Using Big Data
Big data is one of the top warehousing trends dominating the planning sector today, and for a very good reason. Examining the broad output of your warehouse's data — not just fill numbers, orders or returns — can reveal trends and correlations that can be used to fine-tune efficiency. While properly harnessing big data may require calling in an expert or two, the payoff is more than worth the investment, especially when examined on a longer timeline. Factors that you may have never considered before — an uptick in warehousing environmental costs tied to continually-open shipping dock doors during periods of increased deliveries, for example — could be costing you a great deal of money.
If you're still hesitant to use big data, fearing that the effort of collecting and analyzing it will outweigh its usefulness, consider this: you're probably already doing it. The IoT is tying together supply chains from every angle, from 3PL delivery window target feeds to digitized ordering histories and invoices. Often, assembling a substantial chunk of data to examine is just a matter of compiling it from a few different sources you already know and use. According to a recent article in ScanCo, tapping into the IoT for big data is also a way to improve customer relationships and to more successfully manage your inventory.
What Your Data Has to Say
Looking at your data as a tool can also assist you outside of a big data approach. As business increases, many warehouses shift their focus into fast turnaround and high fill rates, failing to take stock of potential discounts along the way. Consider this: when was the last time you spoke to your up-chain component or product suppliers about volume discounts or their capability to carry most or all of the products you need? Cutting down the number of your suppliers is an excellent way to save cost and effort, but few managers take the initiative to make it happen.
Even if your current peak efficiency is impressive, it could be artificially hampered by the need to navigate around loopholes and inconsistencies that have never been addressed. As a warehouse manager, you should be as familiar with your data as you are with your employees. In short, one of the warehousing trends that has the potential to eliminate the largest number of logistical headaches could just be paying closer attention to data that offer improvement opportunities.
Data doesn't lie. If you’ve studied your ordering and fulfillment patterns and noticed a distinct peak or valley in a given month, you should be preparing accordingly. The best supply chain management is predictive, rather than reactive. Ensuring that you don't end up overstocked or understocked may mean changing workflow patterns well in advance of that peak or valley. A recent discussion in SupplyChain Digest also emphasized the need to keep supply chain partners "in the loop" for these warehousing trends. The better they can plan for your needs, the more they are to accommodate when necessary.
Every manager wants their warehouse to run smoothly, and with the right automation and forecasting, it can. Don't let the potential need for additional focus, effort and resources up front dim the opportunity rewards: rest assured that your competitors are already looking into these practices, if not actively employing them. Remember, warehousing trends don't have to completely uproot the familiar practices and expectations of your warehouse as it stands. Simply think of them as a little burst of speed in a race you're already winning.