6 Technologies That Will Shape the Warehouses of the Future

Dan Khasis, CEO of Route4Me

What was your warehouse like 10 years ago? Back then, no one knew what “omnichannel” meant, and e-commerce was still in its infancy. Could you have imagined all the technologies and trends that exist today?

Now, try to visualize what your warehouse will look like 10 years from now. In this article, we’ll review the most promising developments of the supply chain industry and give you a glimpse of what the warehouse of the future will look like.

#1 Artificial Intelligence Will Put Warehouse Managers in the Driver’s Seat

Artificial intelligence (AI) is the talk of the town in every industry (according to MarketsandMarkets, the AI market will be worth $416 billion by 2022), and it will certainly be a core part of future warehouses.

There are a number of reasons why AI will be integral to warehouses. Let’s consider the application of AI in picking efficiency. AI offers warehouses an opportunity to learn from their most productive workers and create computerized models for entire teams.

If data points are collected from the most efficient workers, based on the number of orders, picking sequences, SKUs and scanned barcodes, an algorithm could be created to replicate their movements and choices. The AI application could then suggest a workflow for everyone to follow, which would boost the productivity of under-achievers.

It’s obvious that AI is mostly applicable to repetitive and monotonous tasks in the warehouse, but before taking the AI leap, businesses with warehouses need to evaluate their needs. What do you need to improve? Order accuracy? Picking efficiency? Workplace safety? The most important needs should determine what you look for in an AI application or platform.

Every day, a warehouse produces an extraordinary amount of data from inventory stock levels, shipping details and order numbers. Machine learning can simplify this complex data collection process. It can learn about data through patterns and algorithms. Then, it can recommend activities, such as refilling or reloading items that are almost out of stock. Machine learning can also utilize data to forecast customer requirements based on orders and returns, thereby improving customer satisfaction and eliminating waste. There’s no need to order items that are almost out of stock, if no one is going to buy them.

#2 Blockchain Adoption Will be on the Rise

Bitcoin was in the headlines a lot last year, making it the most famous example of blockchain technology (just in case you’re out of the loop, a blockchain is an expanding list of records linked together using cryptography). But, blockchains aren’t just for cryptocurrency—they have many other uses, too.

Blockchains can be used to record, track and verify trades of virtually anything that holds value. For example, blockchains can link physical goods to barcodes, serial numbers and digital tags like RFID. They can also be used to assign or verify certain properties of physical products, such as determining if a food product is to be labeled organic or fair trade.

Regardless of the application, blockchain technology offers several advantages that will fuel its adoption, including:

  • Scalability: Virtually any number of participants or contributors can have access from any number of touchpoints.
  • Security: A shared, indelible ledger with codified rules could potentially nullify the audits required by internal systems and processes.
  • Decentralized Architecture: Opportunities abound to create new, specialized uses for blockchains.

Although the blockchain ecosystem is still in progress, niche uses of the technology are on the rise, and several supply chains have already started using it.

#3 Augmented Reality Will Transform Warehouse Planning and Management

In the near future, we should also see an exponential growth in the usage of augmented reality (AR) apps. AR can help you guide workers through a facility in the most efficient way, identify issues within warehouses and keep better tabs on the supply chain.

Augmented reality has the potential to reduce expenses by improving the picking process. This will be the primary driver behind its adoption in the coming years. After all, what business doesn’t want to reduce costs?

The traditional picking process is slow and prone to errors. Furthermore, picking jobs are mostly assigned to temporary workers who need cost-intensive training to make sure they pick efficiently without making mistakes.

In the coming years, expect to see vision-picking software enter the mainstream. This may include mobile augmented reality systems, such as wearable head-mounted displays (HMD) and cameras that offer indoor navigation, barcode reading, real-time object recognition and seamless integration of data with Warehouse Management Systems (WMS).

With this software, warehouse staff will be able to see a digital version of the picking list and the best route in their field of vision. Also, the software can check on whether a worker has arrived at the right location and guide the worker to quickly find the right item on the shelf. The worker can then scan the item and register this process simultaneously in the WMS, enabling real-time stock updates.

This entire process will simplify the picking job and reduce the amount of time needed to train new and temporary workers, as well as bridge any language barriers of migrant workers. Knapp, Ubimax, SAP and other companies have already started developing such software, so this is definitely not a distant reality.

That’s not the only way you can use augmented reality. Augmented reality can also help make your warehouse planning more efficient. Today’s warehouses offer a growing number of value-added services, such as labeling, assembling, repair and repacking. Warehouses must be redesigned to accommodate these new services, and augmented reality is the best way to do it.

Augmented reality can be used to visualize any planned arrangement in full scale by placing interactive digital representations of proposed future amendments in the present warehouse environment. Planners can test whether measurements of a planned modification will fit in place and model new workflows. In the future, this could allow the actual warehouse to be used as the testing ground for warehouse operation planning.

#4 Autonomous Vehicle Usage Will Grow Exponentially 

Autonomous vehicles aren’t new to warehouses. They’ve been around for almost 30 years. During the next few years, you can expect their usage to grow exponentially.

There are several drivers behind this trend, but the primary one is the increasing demand for flexibility in warehouses.

Changes in distribution channels, processes and product ranges can have a sudden and significant impact on warehouse requirements. Typical bolted-down conveyor systems are unable to easily adjust to these changes. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) provide more flexibility.

Replacing a large conveying system with AGVs could require hundreds or thousands of small AGVs operating together. This was impossible in the past, but it’s possible to some extent today. And, in the next decade, technological advances in wireless networks, peer-to-peer communication and cloud-based processing should make it more feasible.

#5 Voice-activated Technology Will be Mainstream

Voice-activated wearable devices make warehouse workers more efficient. The problem with most wearable devices is that they need to be activated by touch, and workers often find themselves in situations where they don’t have a free hand to press a button. If they needed to use their device to perform a task, such as locating an item or finding out how many units of a certain item are in stock, they would need to stop what they’re doing in order to find the answer and move forward. Voice-activation allows workers to use their devices without disrupting their current activity.

#6 Image Recognition Technology Will Evolve

Intelligent recognition of video and photo feeds are available today, though many of the methods that will leverage this technology in supply chains are still developing. In the near future, we can expect to see this technology improve processes for barcode recognition, robotic arm picking and pallet selection.

Warehouse control system (WCS) providers are always competing against each other to release the most exciting features and catch the attention of prospective customers. They will integrate advanced image-recognition technology in their solutions as quickly as they can.

Don’t Wait To Automate

According to an old Chinese proverb, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is today.”

Overall, the six technologies reviewed in this article highlight the general trend of automation in the supply chain industry. Every year, machines can perform an increasing number of monotonous tasks, which frees up time for your warehouse staff to take on other roles. This represents a revolution in the way goods are received, stored and shipped. Eventually, warehouses may be fully automated. For now, you can leverage this technology to increase productivity while reducing your expenses.

So, don’t wait to invest in automation. Day-to-day activities always come first, but you must make time to plan for your future; research your automation options; and adopt this technology for your warehouse—whenever it becomes available and is proven to be reliable. Don’t allow your competitors to hold the advantage of being more technologically advanced. The future will be here before you know it. WMHS