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Driving e-commerce with automation

TAGS: Retail
Tia Wallace, Director of Business Development, eCommerce at DHL Supply Chain discusses how to achieve more efficient and sustainable e-commerce operations with automation.

fd516849-e48e-48eb-a8f1-5b28210526f5.jpgOver the last decade, e-commerce operations have benefited greatly from advances in warehouse management systems and new technologies such as automation, data analytics, and robotics, which have all allowed for significant organisational gains. However as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause significant impact across the world, the supply chain industry has seen the pressure on its business change rapidly, with higher volumes of orders and higher expectations from customers.

What started as a peak of six weeks has become a sustained increase over ten months, and shows no sign of slowing. With 83% of EU consumers saying they intend to continue shopping online post pandemic[1], it’s more important than ever to ensure that organisations can meet this growing demand and maximise productivity and efficiency to continue to deliver on the customer promise. But how can businesses do this quickly and with success?

Executing the planning process

As the pandemic hit, the businesses that were able to quickly adjust were those that had focused on establishing the basics of their operation, and had taken the time to lay the groundwork in planning. Retailers with e-commerce offerings faced a range of challenges overnight, depending on the maturity of their operations, but most had to expedite many of their proposals and projects overnight, or pivot entirely. It was in these cases that the benefits of planning really became clear.

For DHL, using data to understand changing consumer behaviour and trends was key to making sure we were able to meet our customers’ needs. In sectors such as wellbeing, and homewares and DIY, we worked with retailers to understand the shifting demand profile to certain SKUs, and developed solutions such as click and collect, fulfil from store, and pop-up warehousing to create the additional capacity to fulfil this demand. Critical to facilitating the re-purposing of warehouse and stores locations to fulfil consumer orders was our ability to offer enhanced WMS capability and integration to web front end and order management systems.    

Embracing enhanced technologies

Most of today’s warehouses have the standard tools to maximise productivity and eliminate manual inefficiencies, but as consumer behaviour shifts, it is important that businesses continue to seek out and deploy the latest innovative supply chain solutions. Robots in particular have been a boon to the supply chain industry, allowing for the automation of tedious tasks and freeing employees to apply their knowledge and skills to the production process.

A notable development is Robotics Process Automation (RPA), an advanced technology which can be programmed to perform a series of defined processes to automatically handle high volume and repeatable tasks and so customers with critical appointment scheduling needs, like retailers, can expect fewer errors. By deploying tools like RPA across a business, both employees and customers will benefit from greater reliability, accuracy, and consistency.

Creating the right combination

Our vision has always been to provide the best mix of mechanised automation with robotic and human labour, optimised based on the rich data we collect along the supply chain. Data is vital to organisations in streamlining operations, introducing new services, and guaranteeing customer satisfaction, but it needs to be properly understood to be acted upon.

While our digitalisation agenda was already in place, the pandemic meant there were new factors to consider. After analysing the data and taking stock of the needs of our customers’ e-commerce operations now and in the future, we have been focused on using data and automation more intelligently, and deploying collaborative robotics solutions to work alongside employees more effectively. As part of this planning we have focused on our own people, prioritising safety and ensuring that effective communication channels are in place. Using data we have been able we have been able to smooth out peak labour requirements, and make sure that we can operate while being compliant with social distancing measures.

Looking to the future

Looking ahead, robotics and automation in the warehouse will no longer be a nice-to-have, but a must-have. By listening to employee feedback and promoting the wellbeing benefits to colleagues while incorporating these technologies, organisations will be able to demonstrate a collaborative working approach, better utilise the tools, and help to maintain a positive and productive working environment.

The pandemic has resulted in five years of accelerated growth in digital shopping[2] and the boundary between online and offline commerce is likely only going to continue to blur. Ultimately, only by prioritising efficient e-commerce operations now, can businesses ensure they don’t get left behind.

Tia recently participated in SHD's The Future of Warehouse Efficiency webinar with Combilift. You can view the full webinar here.

[1] McKinsey 2020

[2] IBM U.S. Retail Index 2020

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