New technologies are changing the supply chain of today, and more importantly, tomorrow. The warehouse is evolving, consumer demand and expectations continue to increase, whilst manual processes struggle to meet the challenges of the digitised age. Businesses are turning towards scalable solutions flexible enough to respond to meet today’s complexities, especially regarding labour.
In the UK, a drive on higher education and the consequential desire for more desk-based careers has caused a decrease in the amount of people seeking a manual job. Human augmentation has consequently experienced a remarkable boost; using modern technologies alongside workers and supply chain managers to enhance warehouse performance. Generally, this means improving the efficiency of repetitive, “simple” tasks and optimising the workload from a warehouse management system or ERP system.
Voice and vision
Voice, and more recently vision, are used in a surprising wide range of industries to improve worker comfort, safety, efficiency and accuracy. The adoption rate of Android devices within the warehouse is set to continue to grow throughout 2020 and beyond, and this technology change has enabled additional solutions. Android-based handheld and wearable devices create significant efficiency opportunities across a wide range of functional areas that might not have considered voice previously. It is also part of a movement towards the use of voice in conjunction with new technologies, such as Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR).
Emerging voice technologies enable multi-modal solutions that combine multiple forms of input and output to bring improvements to any process in the warehouse, from goods receipt, through picking and all the way to loading. For example, combining voice guidance with a scan confirmation, or displaying an image of the product on-screen to assist a new or temporary operator. As a “hands-free, eyes-free” technology, we have seen voice-directed work in the warehouse (VDW) increase productivity by as much as 30% and reduce mis-picks by as much as 50%. It is also highly flexible, allowing supply chain operations to rapidly adapt to the inevitable changes their customers will demand.
While VDW is up to today’s challenges, it’s critical to look beyond. Efficiency comes in many forms and totals up to greater profitability. As a multi-modal tool, voice integrates with other sensory-based systems such as wearable heads-up displays (HUD). Here, the HUD can show more complex information to guide the operator while the voice system offers a proven, hands-free way for the user to respond. As well as opening up new opportunities like returns in the supply chain, this approach also has great applications outside the warehouse too; for example, in maintenance and inspection.
A mix of models
Many new automation solutions focus on optimising the movement of products. Voice, on the other hand, focuses on optimising the operator. Together, they can maximise the efficiency of an overall process. For example, a voice-enabled goods-to-person system improves the comfort, ergonomics and productivity for operators picking and putting the products presented by the automation. We’re also seeing mixed models where automated vehicles or materials handling equipment (MHE) assigned to a voice-directed operator assist with delivery, retrieval, or material placement on high-bay racks. The voice system issues instructions to the robots to reduce handling and optimise travel time.
Industrial robots have been in use across the manufacturing industry for decades. The use of robotics in this environment has enabled the automotive industry, for example, to build better vehicles more efficiently and more cost effectively. However, robots have moved well beyond the manufacturing line. Autonomous mobile robots (AMR) are being used for warehouse activities such as pallet shuttling, picking processes, and put away and replenishment. Emerging technologies such as collaborative robots operate safely around humans and other equipment, and in many cases interact with humans or other equipment as they execute tasks. Indeed, warehousing is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the improvements and subsequent use of robotics in new areas.
All of these technologies are increasing accuracy, productivity and flexibility and will become central parts of the modern digital supply chain. They are also stepping stones to deeper knowledge and data insight for advanced analytics. Examples in this area include real-time positioning, dynamic route optimisation and more. The basic requirement is an integrated platform to bring data together and shine a light on process improvements that were operational blind spots. Simply put, emerging technologies conquer supply chain complexities by building bridges and opportunities for businesses shifting into the supply chain of the future.