The future is now. That’s certainly what it’s starting to feel like, anyway. While we may not have the flying cars from The Jetsons, and Jaws 19 from Back to the Future Part II has yet to hit theaters, our technology is advancing rapidly. Automation is more prevalent than ever, making many of our jobs exponentially easier. Smart warehouse systems represent some of the best examples of businesses embracing this new technology.
What is a Smart Warehouse?
A smart warehouse is the culmination of warehouse automation (in other words, automating various components of your warehousing operations). Similar to a smart home, a smart warehouse is enabled with several automated and interconnected technologies. These technologies work together to increase the productivity and efficiency of the warehouse, minimizing the amount of human workers while decreasing errors.
As Royce Digital explains, “In manual warehouses, we usually saw workers moving around with lists, picking products, loading them into carts and then delivering them to the shipping docks,” but in smart warehousing, “Orders are received automatically, after which the system confirms if the products are in stock. The pick-up lists are then sent to robot-carts that place the ordered products into containers and deliver them to workers for the next step.”
What are Smart Warehouse Systems?
Smart warehouse systems, then, are the result of the various interconnected warehousing technologies working together. They form a technological ecosystem where goods are received, identified, sorted, organized and pulled for shipment automatically. The best smart warehouse systems automate almost the entire operation, from suppliers to customers, with minimal errors.
Components of Smart Warehouse Systems
As we mentioned, smart warehouse systems involve several interconnected technologies working together. Each of these components have their own distinct tasks that automate a crucial piece of your warehouse operations. The most commonly used components of smart warehouse systems include:
Sadly, walking, talking robots that resemble humans aren’t working in smart warehouses quite yet. But there are other types of robots that are almost as cool. And frankly, they’re much more efficient at their jobs. Today’s warehousing robots are typically used for the storage and retrieval of goods within the warehouse.
Usually resembling Roombas, your common warehousing robots automate the picking process by physically bringing product shelves to the human workers packing orders. Essentially, they’re automated, more maneuverable pallet jacks. They move faster than people can, move more goods at once and they can even identify the optimal route for picking up the necessary goods.
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) is an advanced method of maintaining inventory control. RFID involves placing a digital tag on goods and packages that come into a warehouse, replacing paper labels. Radio waves are then used to transfer data to or between the digital tag and an automated scanning system, recording the product’s information.
RFID replaces old barcode scanners, where the barcode has to be precisely aligned with the scanner to identify it. Instead, RFID scanners can simply be pointed in the general direction of the package in order to identify it.
How does this help with inventory management? For one thing, since scanners don’t have to be precisely aligned, automated machines can be used to scan packages as they come in, identifying and counting how many of each type of good is received. In addition, these scanners can detect goods as they leave the warehouse during order fulfillment, ensuring that your inventory count is always accurate.
The use of artificial intelligence (AI) is exploding in every industry, not just in warehousing. The main reason? It reduces errors and costs while increasing productivity. In warehousing specifically, AI has a plethora of uses during every stage of the process.
For example, AI helps warehousing robots find the most efficient route for picking products. It can also be used to determine the best size box for a shipment based on the type, number, size and weight of the products. Some warehouses have even been able to implement machines that can pack products, using AI to pack them in the most space-efficient manner.
Capabilities such as these are helping warehouse operations drastically reduce their operating costs. One of the biggest costs it’s reducing is the number of human workers. According to Cerasis, 30% of UK jobs will become automated by 2030, due in large part to the use of AI.
The Internet of Things
You’ve probably heard of the Internet of Things, or IoT, by now. IoT is essential to the various components of smart warehouse systems working together properly. If you need a refresher, IoT involves several internet-enabled devices communicating with each other and sharing data. In smart warehouse systems, this means that robots can communicate with RFID scanners, which can communicate with conveyors, which can communicate with a warehouse management system (WMS), etc.
An example of IoT at work in a smart warehouse system starts from a warehouse receiving a product. As the shipment is received, a RFID scanner scans the tags, telling a WMS which and how many goods were received. The WMS then communicates with robots, informing them of where those goods should be stored on the warehouse floor.
All of this happens automatically and seamlessly, without losing any crucial information along the way. Without IoT, a human worker would have to complete each step in the process manually. This is prone to error, especially with the massive amount of information about each product that flows through these systems. But thanks to IoT, humans are all but eliminated from the equation, speeding up the process while drastically reducing errors.
Warehouse Management Systems
The use of a WMS is the cherry on top of all of your smart technology. These software solutions help you collect, manage and view all kinds of data about your warehouse operations. This allows you to keep track of how efficient your warehouse’s day-to-day operations are running.
Since most WMS solutions can collect real-time data and create visual reports, they help reveal any deficiencies in your processes. After viewing a WMS report, you can take appropriate action to fix any issues and get your operations back on track.
Implementing Smart Warehouse Systems
The warehouse of today is starting to resemble a scene from a sci-fi movie — and we think that’s a good thing. As we continue on into the not-so-distant future, warehouse automation will become even more prevalent, and smart warehouse systems will dominate the industry. So not to be all, “The end is nigh!” for warehouses that don’t embrace smart warehouse systems, but… the end is nigh.
It’s time to start implementing automation. We’re not saying that you need to buy and implement every piece of technology we listed above (not right away, at least). That would require a huge upfront investment that only the largest of warehousing operations could afford. Instead, start small and build towards automation. Start with just one of these technologies, and after a few years, add another. A few years after that, add another, and so on and so forth.
We suggest starting with a WMS. It’s one of the cheapest to implement, and by gathering and managing your warehousing data, it’s essentially the heart of a smart warehouse system. Have any other advice on implementing or using smart warehouse systems? Let us know below.