Industry 4.0 is here, and your warehouse could probably use an automation upgrade.
Today’s smart warehouse is set to transform the common practices of inventory management, order fulfillment, and customer service for the better. Although businesses have relied on standard warehousing controls for decades, new technology is disrupting operations across the board.
Some see this as a downside of the technological revolution. But companies that prepare for breakthroughs like the smart warehouse will be poised for greater profitability in the near future.
Embracing Industrial Robotics and Automation
Facilities throughout the country have seen a vast increase in the use of industrial robotics and automation on the warehouse floor. Similar machines are already used in production and assembly, but a relatively small number of companies have implemented robotics to aid in order fulfillment services, such as packing and shipping.
Instead of leaving this job up to human employees—who are slower, more expensive, and prone to errors—proactive warehouse managers can introduce robotics to fill these monotonous roles. The employees, in many cases, are trained to operate and maintain such equipment or are reassigned altogether.
Robots today are smarter and more efficient than earlier models. Instead of being confined to a single routine or task, today’s industrial robotics can perform multiple assignments at once. They’re also capable of learning new techniques over the course of time, which ultimately lets them perform even faster and more efficiently.
Smart robotic solutions can also be placed alongside your human workforce for greater control and productivity. Often referred to as co-bots, these machines perform some of the more dangerous or laborious activities.
According to some studies, automated systems are responsible for a 16 percent annual increase in vehicle production throughout the U.S. Production numbers like this ultimately call for increased warehouse space to house raw materials and finished inventory alike.
Connecting With Customers Through Smart Processes
Next-gen warehouses are also improving customer relationships. When receiving shorter shipping times, greater accuracy, and improved service all around, your target demographics will thank you in the long run.
There’s no denying the fact that smart robots are far less susceptible to errors in picking, packing, and shipping than their human counterparts.
Many companies are actually ramping up their customer service training for human employees. In the event that an error does occur during the shipping process, real employees are needed to correct the issue.
But customer service isn’t immune to the extended reach of automation. Chatbots are becoming more common in the initial order fulfillment process and, in some cases, troubleshooting and error resolution. Complex issues still require human intervention at some point.
Smart warehouses also lend themselves well to the concept of curated or recurring shipments. With a rapid rise in the number of retailers that offer product bundling, consumers are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea. Some companies have even based their entire business model around co-packaged goods and novelties like mystery boxes.
Utilizing the Internet of ThingsThe Internet of Things (IoT) plays a huge role in the way customers purchase goods. In the past, consumer avenues were limited to face-to-face transactions or mail order shopping via seasonal catalogs. Today, shoppers are using the internet, in-store kiosks, and even their cell phones to make purchases on the go. Luxuries like this wouldn’t be possible without the interconnectedness of the IoT.
New technology also affects how quickly customer orders are processed, shipped, and delivered. By establishing a nationwide network of distribution centers, for example, companies can now expedite shipping based on the nearest shipping facility.
Some businesses use this to guarantee shipping within a certain number of business days, and sometimes even hours, but it typically comes with an added cost to the customer.
While the IoT enhances transparency and accessibility for your customers, the Industrial Internet of Things, also known as the IIoT or Industry 4.0, is the driving force behind the increased automation in your warehouse. It has led to autonomous inventory tracking and picking, self-driving forklifts, and machines able to monitor and diagnose themselves.
Although the IoT and the IIoT are still in their infancy stages, both have shown tremendous potential when it comes to implementing the smart warehouse and revolutionizing the way consumers shop. Whether it’s groceries or automobiles, nearly everything will be affected by new technology within the coming years.
Separating Regular Business From Seasonal Functionality
Depending on your line of business, your warehouse might have to accommodate custom or seasonal stock on occasion. In traditional operations, these additions were simply placed on top of the normal, day-to-day responsibilities of the warehouse team. While this is a viable solution for dealing with the extra inventory, it’s not always ideal or cost-effective.
According to some experts, the most efficient smart warehouses treat custom or seasonal inventory as a separate entity from regular warehouse stock. Holiday gift-wrapping services, special deliveries, and specific customer accommodations should all be handled individually. This prevents disruptions or bottlenecks in your regular workflow while still providing the extra services consumers have come to expect in today’s economy.
It’s also important to note seasonal demand doesn’t necessarily align with the standard holidays. While December will almost always account for increased consumer spending, local and community-centric events play a role too. The parents of schoolchildren finishing up summer vacation will certainly spend more in the way of school supplies like notebooks, folders, pens, and pencils.
Other popular holidays include Halloween, Easter, and Thanksgiving. Certain sporting events, such as NASCAR races or the NFL’s Super Bowl, also result in increased consumer spending. Planning for these occasions is critical when trying to maximize the efficiency of your smart warehouse.
The Future of the Smart Warehouse
While the concept of the smart warehouse has yet to be perfected, its role in the customer-centric economy of today cannot be ignored.
With technology advancing at a quickened pace and the breakthrough of systems like the IIoT, it won’t be long before all of our nation’s warehouses and distribution centers are equipped with smart equipment.
Kayla Matthews writes about the future of work and connected technologies for publications like The Week, MakeUseOf, and VentureBeat. Check out her tech blog to read more posts from Kayla.