Navigating the Warehouse Evolution: Automation, workforce shortages & increased flexibility

Features Original Content

With consumer expectations soaring for faster deliveries, Warehouse Operations leaders are embracing automation solutions to optimise processes. From stock reception to order dispatch, efficiency is the name of the game. To combat rising return costs, warehouses are prioritising error reduction through technologies like barcode scanning and quality control. In this month’s feature we take a look at the dynamics shaping modern warehousing.

In the face of the pandemic, Brexit, geopolitical tensions, and surging inflation, warehouse and logistics businesses are navigating unprecedented challenges, pushing them to enhance resilience and efficiency. The spotlight is on achieving more with less, prompting a surge in omnichannel strategies.

Businesses are increasingly servicing both B2B and B2C orders from a single warehouse, fostering streamlined inventory management, cost reduction, and optimised logistics and fulfilment processes. Additionally, warehouses are being viewed as extensions of manufacturing capabilities, with the incorporation of value-added services to drive economies of scale and elevate operational efficiency.

Automation takes a central stage

‘Technologies such as drones, robotics and autonomous vehicles have increased over the last few years as warehouse operators look to improve their efficiency and reduce the risk of errors that can have financial repercussions,’ tells us Adrian Peiris, Business Manager – Contract Logistics, GAC Qatar.

A research by SCALA suggests that 42% of manufacturers, retailers, and 3PLs are planning to invest equal to or more than their annual warehousing costs on automation over the next five years.

‘The challenge for organisations will be adopting the right technology to meet the specific needs of their business while ensuring this is integrated effectively into existing systems and workflows to deliver the desired improvements and ROI,’ comments Dave Howorth, Executive Director at SCALA.

Rhyce Dawson, Associate Director at TMX Transform takes a look at simulations and digital twins, which are also growing in importance.

‘These technologies can now provide critical insights into operations and greenfield facilities to help uncover hidden opportunities and make informed strategic decisions. Above all, they allow for sensitivity analysis to ensure that when decisions are made, they are robust enough to withstand the dynamics of today’s world,’ he says.

There are many opportunities for technology to be implemented to reduce the increasing demand for workers in warehouses.

Rich Trahey, VP of Global Sales and Marketing at Configura, however, says that companies should not underestimate the importance of the workforce. ‘Warehouse and DC designers should expend as much effort as needed to design beautiful operations where people will enjoy working,’ Rich explains.

Arguably, software is the easiest and most flexible solution to implement. For instance, in years past, there may have been 50 people walking and picking orders in a warehouse. Now, walk times can be reduced through technology, and smarter choices can be made on when to bring similar orders together to optimise the picking process. What used to take 50 people can now be done with only 20 or even fewer with automated solutions.

The workforce question

‘The biggest challenge moving forward will be striking the right balance between investment in automation and robotics technologies and utilising the strengths of the human workforce to improve results,’ agrees Dave Howorth.

Businesses must conduct regular workforce planning and forecasting to anticipate staffing needs and proactively address potential shortages. Just as crucial is retaining, developing and promoting employees effectively.

“Promoting a positive work culture is crucial to help maintain employee satisfaction and improve retention. This means fostering an environment where employees feel valued, respected and motivated, as well as providing an open channel of communication between employees and managers,’ Adrian Peiris adds.

Across the business world, there is a fear that automation and AI will displace jobs, but for many employees, including those in warehousing, it can be an opportunity to upskill, retrain, and deliver more rewarding and strategic work. Bringing employees on the journey and offering appropriate training and support can make all the difference in the success of the implementation.

Going up

In response to escalating land costs and heightened capacity demands, warehouses are shifting their perspective from expanding horizontally to maximising vertical spaces. The latest trend involves leveraging verticality more effectively through the implementation of multi-tiered racking systems, integration of mezzanine levels, and the installation of high-bay automated storage and retrieval systems. This strategic approach aims to enhance storage density and is indicative of the innovative ways warehouses have adapted to evolving operational requirements.

‘By ensuring their layouts are flexible and modular, warehouses can now reconfigure spaces quickly and seamlessly adjust to accommodate diverse products and requirements,’ explains Trevor Stamp, General Manager – Contract Logistics, GAC Dubai.

Where to start from

Pallet wrapping, pallet putaway and retrieval, and product movement using conveyors are typically good places to start, as they tend to be easy to implement and deliver clear returns on investment.

Picking and packing technologies also help to streamline operations as they can relieve staff of repetitive and often error-prone tasks to deliver greater accuracy while freeing up the workforce to focus on more strategic and value-adding tasks.

Capital availability is a significant barrier for businesses to transition into large-scale automation. ‘Companies need substantial financial resources to invest in end-to-end automation, which is challenging considering rising interest rates and other economic challenges hovering over the industry,’ hightlites Rhyce Dawson.