by Vikas Choudaha, Senior Vice President and Business Head, Godrej Storage Solutions
The year 2020 brought its own set of challenges for the warehousing industry. While Covid-19 led to increased e-commerce activity, it also brought with it labour shortages at warehouses. With lockdown restrictions imposed across the country, logistics became even more complicated, there were manpower challenges, and as a result, the warehousing sector found itself in something of a limbo. Staff operating from warehouses cannot work from home, so companies have had to make facilities safe for employees. In addition, they have turned to automation to bring in efficiency in a new socially distanced workplace norm.
The rise of e-commerce and complexity arising due to the pandemic further ramped up the need for more flexibility in warehouses. While e-commerce is leading the pack in adopting cutting-edge automation like robotics, drones, etc, due to its fast-delivery and high-volume nature, warehouses for industries like electronics manufacturing are moving from manual forklifts to Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) with conveyors. We are witnessing changes across different industries like manufacturing, healthcare, retail, consumer goods, logistics & transportation. This impacts the level of maturity in automation for a warehouse, depending on the specific needs of different industries.
Technology has not only been driving shopping experiences but also shaping the way goods are sorted and stored. As companies are looking to increase efficiency, manage manpower shortages and boost productivity, technology and automation at warehouses are taking center stage.
Technology has the potential to redefine warehouse operations in many ways. It involves the process of accepting, adapting, and learning to be efficient amidst changing times. As living with the pandemic becomes the new normal, adapting to automation and digitization will be the mantra to boosting the sector’s growth.
Mechanization and automation to bring in efficiency
The warehousing industry in India is undergoing a significant shift, keeping pace with the emerging manufacturing sector and the boost in e-commerce. Extended lockdowns across the country resulted in restricted mobility and consumers avoiding physical shopping, which led to a sharp rise in the number of e-commerce users in India. Online shopping during work from home led to the rising need for a quick delivery system. As a result, businesses are looking beyond traditional approaches towards adopting robotics-enabled automation systems in warehouses to support this increasing demand.
To enable companies to execute faster delivery timelines, integrating automated technologies at warehouses can bring more efficiency. For instance, Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV) have proved to ease the functions in a warehouse. Using AGV, a robot, to transport inventory around a warehouse, track the products and deliver them to a worker to pack for further delivery is an excellent use of technology to ensure speedy delivery. Robots running on complex algorithms enabling them to pick and drop inventory are becoming game-changer in this industry.
Drones are another automated equipment used in warehouses across the world for inventory and asset management. It may sometimes be difficult to reach stocks stored at ceiling heights. Drones come to the rescue by reaching those heights and access the necessary inventory. Such equipment is smaller ways to induce technology in daily operations to ease manual labour. In fact, they allow workers to continue with their daily duties parallelly, rather than being pulled away to carry out tasks like inventory count.
Automatic stackers for enhanced productivity
Using stackers to operate at a warehouse has given a big push in adapting to new technology. There are manual and semi-automated stackers to operate, find, and pull products. However, through cutting-edge technology, automated stackers have been helping operations without any manual effort. Simple changes such as the adoption of these equipment are significantly improving productivity and resilience in warehouse management.
Smarter management with Artificial Intelligence
The need for social distancing bought digital tools and technology into the spotlight. It accelerated the pace of digitization even in sectors that had never tried automation before. The use of technology is changing the way the industry is functioning now. Technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) can enable warehouses to become smart. AI can help streamline processes, manage warehouse inventory with more accuracy and lead to a reduction in errors. For example, voice-guided technology is not a new concept, but recent AI improvements have enhanced its capabilities. Using this technology has been shown to reduce picking errors. Pick to light (or PTL) is another example of order picking technology for warehouses, which helps increase picking efficiency compared to traditional methods.
AI also provides transparency through an automated system and IoT-enabled tracking. Smart warehouse technologies like AI can significantly improve efficiency and safety in a facility. We know that manual processes can be time-consuming. Automated asset tracking systems are fully optimized to ensure minimum product wastage and save time.
Smart sorting tools for greater accuracy
For many years, sorting at warehouses has been a manual process prone to errors in warehouses. However, smart sorting solutions can now provide a competitive advantage by streamlining processes with greater accuracy. New-age sorting tools can help warehouse workers efficiently pick up and sort product batches into distinct orders. A flexible and intelligent sorting solution can bring benefits to warehouse management that can far exceed many traditional processes.
The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted the warehouse sector drastically. It has shown that businesses require more flexibility and agility to operate seamlessly in dramatically changing market conditions, which is where automation comes into the picture. Though it faced quite a challenge initially, the sector has adapted and regained its momentum. Pre-pandemic, the sector considered automation to be a luxury. Now, it is seen as very much a necessity.
To be more data-driven and allow safer and better conditions for the workers will be the industry’s goal. In fact, safety has become one of the prime drivers in warehousing facilities. It is important to note that improved efficiency at warehouses translates into a safer work environment. Compromising this aspect is no longer an option as more and more companies are focusing on safety through higher R&D investment in advanced equipment like compression test rig, joint stiffness rig, endurance rig, etc, to conduct pilot experimentation and validate product life & stability, use of cutting edge design tools, intensive safety audits, etc. After all, advanced technologies in warehouses will only provide your workforce with the right set of tools and support to help them excel.
Technology in warehousing has certainly increased productivity in the booming e-commerce market. Automation has streamlined operations and gives way to plan better for the future. By boosting productivity and speedy delivery system, it has increased the value by driving greater ROI. With market demand likely to continue into the post-pandemic period, there is a huge potential for automation and digitization in warehousing, as it will only help businesses become more resilient in terms of their long-term operations. The pandemic has come as a blessing in disguise for the warehousing sector to plan better for the future.