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03 January 2024

The Smart Warehouse is Here and What Will It Mean For Industries

By Bobby Carlton

We’ve got smart homes, smart highways, and even smart toothbrushes—now bring on the smart warehouse!

When we say “smart,” we usually think of internet connectivity, and it’s no different for smart warehouses. It’s not just about internet connectivity and analytics; it’s a game-changer. Smart warehouses go beyond, incorporating new levels of visibility, advanced optimization tech, and system-based decision-making. From IoT to simulation, robotics, and machine learning, it’s a tech powerhouse.

Besides analytics and connectivity, smart warehouses also include a variety of other factors. These include new levels of awareness and visibility, system-based decision-making, and optimization techniques. In addition to the internet of things, smart warehouses can take advantage of other tech such as machine learning, Ai, and simulation.

smart warehouse

Image: Supply Chain Quarterly

Above is a framework for creating a smart warehouse. While a warehouse management system (WMS) is required for this type of designation, it is not enough. In the past many companies relied on outdated systems to achieve high efficiency.

Despite the progress that has been made in the field of warehouse management over the past two decades, there is still a lot of work to be done to improve its functionality. To meet the increasing demands of today’s consumerism, businesses have had to cut down on costs and at the same time increase throughput. These changes are driving a new era of technology into the warehouse.

A smart warehouse is built on a variety of components and capabilities that are beyond what a standard warehouse management system can provide. It will be able to meet the needs of today’s organizations by utilizing technologies that can be easily deployed and modified.

Most of these new capabilities are delivered through a combination of software and hardware, which is commonly referred to as a warehouse execution system. 

The goal of a smart warehouse is to provide a superior core operations experience, which will be achieved through the use of an advanced management system. This will involve the use of mobile terminals, barcode scanning, and advanced task management. It will also support various other strategies such as dynamic slotting and labor reporting.

smart warehouse

SMART WAREHOUSE AWARENESS

Besides guiding core operations, a smart warehouse also monitors the environment. This type of awareness is provided by a warehouse environment system (WES), which is designed to provide a deeper understanding of the operations of the warehouse. Unlike a traditional WMS, which is typically reactive, a WES is always on, aware of the constraints and activities in the warehouse.

Through this type of awareness, a smart warehouse can monitor the various aspects of the warehouse such as its throughput and bottlenecks. It can also provide a view of the entire case picking area or individual modules. This will allow the user to make informed decisions and improve the efficiency of their operations.

With real-time visibility into the operations of the warehouse, a smart warehouse can provide a detailed view of the status of the distribution center. This can be used to help managers make informed decisions and improve their efficiency.

PUT WALLS

One of the most common types of solutions that can help improve the efficiency of a warehouse is the use of put walls. These are designed to provide a small footprint for the consolidation of orders. They can help reduce the walk to and from the inventory storage area and improve the accuracy of the supply chain. Put walls can also be used to decouple the various applications of order fulfillment.

The WES uses the same data collected by the other systems in the warehouse to make informed decisions regarding the flow of goods, workers and put walls.

For instance, if the put wall area is becoming too congested, a smart warehouse can either slow down the upstream pick activity or send the picks to an alternative path. This can be done on its own or through a combination of methods such as manual cart picking.

Simulation tools can then use this granular view of the activity in the warehouse to provide a foundation for the dynamically allocating of resources and labor.

DECISIONS CAN BE AUTOMATED

Despite the advanced features of a warehouse management system, most warehouse operations still rely on human decision making to make decisions regarding the release of work and other tasks. With the help of a smart warehouse, these decisions can be automated which can improve the efficiency of the operations.

The release of work process is performed according to various attributes such as the priority of the order, the availability of resources, and the carrier cut-off times.

With the help of a smart warehouse, the WES can now dynamically reprioritize the tasks that are required to meet the requirements of the distribution center. Although it’s already been used in the past, the new capabilities will take the prioritization to a new level.

In a smart warehouse, a cart picker can dynamically assign a pick to a cart based on its configuration and the goal to reduce travel time. However, if a very urgent order comes in, the system might have to check if there are any carts with the same priority as the hot order.

In a smart way, the system can also dynamically assign a pick to a particular order if the locations of the pick are in front of the picker. This eliminates the need for the picker to go back to the previous path after picking an order.

PREVENT ERRORS

In addition to improving the efficiency of the operations, a smart warehouse can also automate the measurement and tracking of people and equipment by using various technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), real-time locating systems, and radio-frequency identification (RFID). It can replace barcode scanning with RFID in some cases. This technology can also eliminate manual entry of data and prevent errors such as “mispicks.”

The use of RFID can help develop new kinds of smart capabilities. It can be used to track the movements of a lift truck driver to determine which routes are the most efficient for their work. In addition, the IoT can be used to implement social distancing in order to improve the efficiency of the operations.

As the warehouse technology continues to improve, the user interface of that system will become more intuitive. A smart warehouse can use voice technology to improve the interactions between workers and the software.

Through the use of voice technology, managers can now ask questions and receive a response in a more direct manner. This type of dialogue is commonly referred to as the “conversational voice.” It replaces the traditional “transactional voice.”

Today, there are various applications that allow workers to use voice to access information from a warehouse management system (WMS). For example, they can request an updated status of the current picking wave.

OPTIMIZE MATERIAL HANDLING SYSTEMS

Due to the increasing number of advanced material handling systems, such as pick-to-light and automated vehicles, distribution managers are now able to choose the most suitable system for their needs. These include various types of robots and put walls, which are relatively inexpensive and can be easily integrated into their operations.

A smart warehouse software can integrate with these types of automated systems and improve their performance. It can also help manage the flow of products across different types of materials handling systems.

The integration layer of a smart warehouse software can be regarded as an operating system that can manage the integration of various automation technologies. For instance, it can be used to integrate mobile robots from different vendors.

The integration layer can be used to integrate various automation technologies, such as mobile robots, smart carts, and put walls. It can also help manage the flow of products across different types of materials handling systems. One of the main advantages of using a single platform is that it can lower the total cost of ownership. This eliminates the need for separate software and allows the system to optimize its performance.

The ability to seamlessly integrate various automation technologies is also a key component of the smart warehouse software’s overall strategy. It can help manage the overall flow of work and improve the performance of the warehouse. This is unlike how previous generations of warehouse software have worked.

ENABLING NEW TECHNOLOGIES

The foundation for a smart warehouse will be based on the various enabling technologies.

A Dynamic Rules Engine: One of the most important components of a smart warehouse software’s foundation is a rules engine, which will dynamically create and execute rules based on the flow and process of the warehouse. These rules can be easily adaptable and can be used to address various constraints and capacities.

In-Line Analytics: A smart warehouse software will also be equipped with a variety of analytics that are designed to increase the efficiency of the warehouse by providing a deeper understanding of the operations. These can be used to make informed decisions and improve the effectiveness of the warehouse.

Simulation: One of the most important features of a smart warehouse software is the ability to perform simulation tools, which are designed to improve the planning and forecasting of the warehouse’s operations. For instance, by analyzing historical data and other factors, the software can predict the expected volume of products and provide a comprehensive view of the overall labor and resource plan for a given shift using sim programs such as Nvidia Omniverse to build out simulations

Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence: These two technologies are expected to play a significant role in the development and implementation of smart warehouses over time. For instance, companies can use these technologies to improve the planning and forecasting of their operations by developing work plans that are based on the estimates of various factors such as the processing times and carrier schedules. This will allow them to continuously improve the efficiency of their operations.

SMART WAREHOUSE BENEFITS

Shippers can expect to benefit from the various advantages of a smart warehouse.

  • Significantly reduced labor costs
  • Higher and more consistent distribution center (DC) throughput
  • Reduced need for automation (for example, fewer number of diverts) or the ability to achieve more throughput from a fixed or current level of DC automation
  • Improved labor planning and allocation across a shift
  • Improved, automated decision-making
  • Faster implementation of new automation technologies, especially picking sub-systems
  • Greater agility to add/change processes or add automation over time.

FS Studio Synthetic Data

Image: Synthetic Data work completed by FS Studio

The emergence of smart warehouses and the increasing number of automation technologies will significantly change the way warehouse operations are conducted. It will allow companies to achieve competitive advantage by providing them with the necessary tools and resources to improve their operations.

With the increasing availability of more affordable and scalable technology, it is clear that a more significant number of companies will adopt material handling systems over time. However, many of the capabilities in this article can also drive value for other operations. It is time for companies of all types to start thinking about a more automated future for their distribution operations.

If you’d like to learn more about how your business or your industry can take advantage of smart warehouse technology, let us know and schedule a call now! We’d be more than happy to talk with you about our work in this area.