The future of the warehouse: 10 technologies that are transforming warehouse space
As our retail habits change and commerce increasingly shifts online, the demand for warehouse space is steadily increasing.
UK estate agent Savills estimated that warehouse space in the UK stood at 556 million sq ft in 2021 – a figure that had jumped by 138 million sq ft since 2015, representing a 32 percent rise over six years. This makes it one of the UK’s fastest growing sectors.
And it isn’t only the footprint or warehousing that is expanding. Many warehouse operators are turning to technology to optimise existing operations and to meet the rising demand for rapid, accurate order fulfilment.
How can technology assist in the warehouse?
The scope of innovative technology solutions that can assist in optimising warehouse operations is vast, spanning multiple technology areas.
Barcode scanners, sensors, QR codes and connected hand-held scanners and devices offer opportunities to improve order picking and inventory management. They can help to reduce human error and are foundational to integrating further technologies, such as robotic picking solutions or drone-based inventory management solutions.
In the UK, the warehouses of Internet retailer Ocado are the most publicised example of robotic picking warehouse operations. The supermarket has made a name for itself designing highly automated warehouses and selling the tech to other grocery chains. Operating on a grid system, the bots have a central cavity and a set of claws used to grab crates which are then sent down vertical chutes to picking stations.
US retailer Walmart was testing drones in its warehouse operations as far back as 2016. Sensor-equipped drones fly along warehouse aisles to check for items, send stock alerts for low-stock items and check for items misplaced outside their assigned inventory slots. While the technology raises some significant safety concerns in warehouses in which humans are working, the potential for improved stock management is exciting the grocery chain.
Drones are not the only autonomous vehicles being deployed in warehouses either. The potential for autonomous for-lift trucks to alleviate the growing shortage of qualified fork-lift truck drivers in the UK is another development exciting industry commentators.
The IoT might be making its way into warehouses as part of drone, robotic and inventory management solutions but it also has potential in more traditional solutions. Building sensors and metering linked to dynamic energy management systems can help to improve the energy and resource efficiency of warehouses to deliver more sustainable operations.
Cloud-based software-as-a-service software solutions have put advanced warehouse management and ERP solutions in the hands of even the smallest operators. Now, cloud data platforms are the next big frontier. They offer an effective way to bring together, store, collate and analyse the data that is being generated by the myriad of technologies employed in a modern warehouse.
Linking the various players in the supply chain is key to optimising operations and leveraging the full benefits of these technologies. Cloud solutions, integrated ERP and data sharing via APIs are helping to improve the flow of information between supply chain partners.
Cyber security solutions
As data flows around the warehouse and between supply chain partners and warehouse operations become more dependent on technology, the need for effective cyber security becomes more intense. A cyber-attack could bring operations to a halt – with significant reputational and financial consequences.
Advanced cloud based security tools aid with automation of routine security tasks and improved threat monitoring and protection – vital if the new technologies are going to be deployed successfully.
Advanced data analytics
The use of data to drive better decision making and operational optimisation is well recognised. Potential uses cases include: accurate demand forecasting, smarter inventory planning, rapid responses to supply chain issues and new channel management.
According to survey data from the USA, ninety-one percent of respondents are digitalising data and processes collectively. However, only 31 percent are using predictive analytics and only 26 percent are using artificial intelligence. This means that 29 percent of respondents are digitalising data and processes but not using the advanced technology needed to make that data more actionable.
Sitting on data that is not being used simply creates an extra cost centre for the business. However, digital twins, AI and ML tools can transform data from and expense to an efficiency driver.
For example, Ocado’s newest warehouses use algorithms to determine inventory location planning, with frequently accessed items placed on the top and rarer purchases near the bottom, thereby streamlining picking and packing operations and delivering time and cost efficiencies.
What do all these technologies have in common? The need for new connectivity solutions into and around the warehouse. SD-WAN and mobile connectivity solutions offer more cost-effective ways to meet the increase in data traffic resulting from the use of new digital technologies in the warehouse by meeting the need for agile, adaptable, secure and resilient networking.
According to UK Government data, in 2022, the UK’s built environment was responsible for 25 percent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.