Warehouse trends in the wake of the pandemic

By Daniel Dombach, EMEA Industry Solutions Director, Zebra Technologies.

While the pandemic has impacted many companies, others have experienced strong growth as restrictions applied to pre-COVID 19 shopping patterns have accelerated growth in ecommerce. According to Digital Economy Index (DEI), online sales between April and May 2020 exceeded the regular sales boom period of November and December 2019 by 7%. Warehouse operators have experienced the equivalent of the Christmas rush every day.

These exceptional levels of demand have led to increased hiring. Before the pandemic, Zebra’s 2024 Warehouse Vision Study revealed that recruitment was a significant challenge for 60% of warehouse operators. Lockdowns and shielding exacerbate this. Even if new staff are available, improving throughput and workflows within warehouse operations is not solved by simply adding more people.

Our customers tell us the reason for this is that in an average warehouse, getting new staff up to speed so they can perform as efficiently as established staff, takes four and a half weeks. This is an enormous resource drain. Typical busy periods might last three months, and the extra staff hired to deal with these peaks might not be able work effectively for a third of that time.

Time Machines 

One of the reasons onboarding new employees takes so long is often linked with the infrastructure technology and devices used within the warehouse. Staff navigate terminal emulation systems on old-fashioned green screens, working through complex menus and processes that are cumbersome and tiring. For young workers who have grown up in a world of friendly, advanced technology, it might seem like they have stepped back in time by two decades when they step into the warehouse environment.

Technology can help here. Warehouse solutions have developed rapidly since most warehouse owners initially adopted digital processes, like the first Warehouse Management System (WMS) applications. Warehouse managers that modernise now will leap over several generations of user-experience and technological evolution. 

The latest devices can bring together touchscreen apps, augmented reality (AR), wearables, modern touch interface design, wireless connectivity, voice commands and more. They can overlay processes with an existing older WMS, bringing modern-day comforts and efficiencies, without requiring replacing current or entire investments. 

This kind of technology revolutionises jobs and augments workers’ capabilities to drive accuracy and efficiency beyond normal human levels of attainment. An AR, heads-up display, the size of the first knuckle of your thumb, can be clipped onto regular industrial eyewear, helping the worker through every process. Once guided to the correct set of shelves, color-coding can then pinpoint them to the individual shelf. 

Data capture devices (with 2D barcode scanners) can now be mounted on a ring, so workers’ hands are free to comfortably pick and scan the item at the same time. What’s more, the heads-up display also understands workers’ orientation, so when they turn round to the trolley, it can tell them in which compartment to place the picked items, avoiding additional re-sorting when the trolley reaches the next stage of its journey.

Human Impact

Such technology can improve warehouse productivity, reduce errors and save time. Our customers’ field testing shows an average of more than 20% increase in tasks completed over the course of a day.

An important adjunct to this is that modern technology slashes the training time required to get new warehouse operators up and running. In our experience, an increasing amount of these new software and solution implementations run on the Android™ operating system, well known to many people from its use in mobile phones and specifically designed for the user experience in working environments. With familiar touch-screen interfaces, new workers can quickly master WMS applications at the same time it takes to do this on their personal smartphone. 

Being equipped with this technology and purpose-built devices makes a real difference to workers’ perception of their job status: boosting self-esteem and increasing retention. 

Technology Transformation Journey

We see increased adoption and demand for these kinds of warehouse technologies during the pandemic. This period has dramatically accelerated digital transformation across every sector. This transformation will continue as warehouse operators and logistics enterprises understand the importance to prepare for a potential second wave of the pandemic.

This technology journey has several stages, with every warehouse owner/operator at his or her own level and seeking to move forward. The first stage is typically focused on scanning – perhaps to record goods-in and goods-out. Useful – and a lot better than typing numbers into an application – but not really integrated into the whole business. 

In my opinion, the second stage enhances these operations, perhaps including voice-directed picking, heads-up display devices, and centrally integrating the technology with WMS. 

For the third stage, sensors are built into the warehouse’s infrastructure, with RFID tags. This effectively automates the scanning process and provides a leap forward in terms of accuracy and efficiency.

Stage four involves, in part, the introduction of robots, or at least, automated workflows and processes. It is about responding to best next move guidance and decision making.

In most cases, we see co-bots, robots acting in collaboration with human workers. The introduction of self-driving vehicles, for example, could eliminate the 12-18-kilometer walks undertaken today by typical warehouse workers. Instead, they could be allocated a set of aisles where they remain, while autonomous vehicles transport goods to and from the loading bays. There are stories about picking robots replacing human workers. For most warehouses this remains impractical as robots aren’t adept at picking small parts and are very poor at reverse logistics (returns) procedures. We believe humans will remain integral to operations at most warehouses for some time yet.

The fifth final stage, which is the most advanced for warehouse operations, integrates intelligent automation and data analytics, to help predict and adapt to daily performance. 

Whatever stage in this journey warehouse owners and operators have reached, time is certainly of the essence when it comes to their next move. The conditions for rapid adoption are here and the technology already exists. It’s imperative to keep pace with consumer and commercial demand and expectations, at the same time as keeping up with competitors. This will require warehouse operators to make swift, informed decisions.

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