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The Time for Digitalization Has Arrived

Oct. 4, 2021
As warehouses prepare for the holidays, even small steps toward digitalization can have a significant impact on operations.

There’s no mistaking the fact that small businesses are the lifeblood of the American economy. 47% of all employees in the United States, or 60 million people, are employed by small businesses. Small business owners create two-thirds of net new jobs and are responsible for driving nearly 44% of economic activity in the country. Often overlooked as technology leaders, small businesses are rapidly changing that perception as many—especially small warehouse operators—prepare for the second e-commerce-driven holiday season.

Analysts predict that e-commerce will generate 18.9% of holiday retail sales in 2021. As more consumers do their shopping online, supply chain challenges are expected to continue adding pressure to an already stressed workforce. Smaller warehouse operators are increasingly embracing technology and augmenting workers with automated technology solutions. Their ultimate goals are to boost hiring and employee retention, automate smart workflows, improve inventory visibility and management, and protect both operations and customer data with enhanced cybersecurity measures.

The Warehouse Recruitment Challenge

Despite more people entering the workforce, warehouses of all sizes face a labor shortage that threatens output and, eventually, customer satisfaction. In Zebra’s most recent Warehousing Vision Study, 60% of surveyed IT and operational decision-makers cited recruitment as a significant operational challenge.

Many larger companies may be leveraging perks like signing bonuses, subsidized education, and higher wages to attract new talent, creating stiff competition for the average small business looking to hire. Technology can be a differentiating factor for small- and medium-size warehouses in attracting and retaining talent. This differentiation is even more salient as the existing workforce ages and digital natives come to the fore. Prospective employees expect a tech-enabled workplace because they already depend on mobile devices and constant connectivity in their personal lives.

These expectations often translate to jobseekers choosing workplaces where they can rely on technology to improve their productivity and make everyday tasks easier to complete. Warehouse leaders reported that it takes an average of 4.5 weeks for workers to reach full productivity. Mobile devices and task-specific applications can speed up and supplement the training process, getting new employees up to speed faster.

Fostering Mutually-Beneficial Employer-Employee Relationships

Satisfied and supported employees also tend to be more invested in the company and their individual performance. While physical safety remains paramount in the warehouse environment, new priorities have arisen in the wake of the pandemic. Technology plays a vital role in keeping front-line workers safe and healthy.

Many operators of small warehouses are optimizing their workers’ mobile computers, tablets and wearables for the current pandemic reality with software that monitors social distancing to alert them—and managers—when they are too close to others for an extended length of time. These operators are also opting more for rugged devices that can stand up to intense sanitization. Most devices in the warehouse are used by different workers throughout the day, so they must be cleaned often which, at a minimum, would be before and after workers check them out at the start and end of a shift.

In today’s forward-thinking warehouse and logistics environments, front-line workers are invaluable. They are also much more than just warehouse employees in the traditional sense—they’re tech operatives as well. The devices workers use may not require coding or extra schooling, but they serve an important, high-tech function all the same. What’s more, employees are learning technical prowess on the job that is more valuable than the warehouse dynamic of the past, giving businesses a leg up on other warehousing jobs that may still rely on manual operations.

Implementing Automation

Automating manual processes is essential to driving competitive advantage in today’s warehousing landscape. Automation may seem like a big concept that is difficult for any warehouse—especially small warehouses—to achieve in a short time frame, but small steps can lead to big improvements.

As warehouse operations mature, automation simply refers to the bundling of separate technologies to better solve problems and free up workers to concentrate on higher-order tasks. Automated warehouse operations can integrate workforce management, inventory management and asset management, to name just a few, for a more holistic view of what’s happening across the facility.

A More Efficient and Self-Sufficient Workforce

A mobile workforce is a more empowered one. Technology plays a major role in improving employee self-sufficiency and job satisfaction, especially if it can automate tasks and decision-making that would otherwise slow down workers or lead to mistakes. Giving them the right software tools, along with mobile devices designed for warehouse use, helps them move more easily through tasks. It also helps ensure accuracy during receiving, putaway, picking, packing and shipping processes.

For many warehouses, the inventory management process is the most important priority to tackle and perhaps the easiest place to start. It has never been easier to apply barcoded labels or radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to every item, and new technologies make it simple to read both with a simple trigger pull, or even in an automated manner. Fixed industrial scanners and RFID readers have become simple to install, use and manage in the past couple of years, and they can push data in real-time to workers that need it.

Once workers know exactly where to go to locate inventory and pick orders and what to do next, they can quickly pivot between tasks. In turn, they’ll spend more time getting things done and less time walking around the warehouse looking for individual items. These savings are significant throughout the grueling holiday season when every minute saved counts.

These same technologies also make it easy for warehouse supervisors, as well as supply chain partners and customers, to track the progress of each order so they don’t have to chase someone down for an update—saving time and resources. 

Prioritizing Cybersecurity

Business of all sizes are at risk of cyberattacks and data breaches, and small businesses are often the target of cybercriminals who assume the company has not invested in security infrastructure at the same level as a larger organization. A survey by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) revealed that 88% of small business owners felt their businesses were vulnerable from attacks like phishing, malware and sophisticated supply chain hacks.

For these reasons, warehouse operators must remain aware of security risks and prioritize digital safety measures both before and after implementation of new technology. Those who don’t know where to start should ask their technology solution provider for help. They can point out security features that may be built into mobile devices and software to help warehouse operators’ IT teams and front-line workers manage the frequent security updates that will be required to reduce the risk of costly attacks. They will also help reduce the risk of over-investment in IT staffing or duplicate security tools. For example, many devices built for warehouses allow for unique user privileges, which is one of the easiest ways to help protect sensitive data shared on those devices. They also connect to services that can help automate regular software updates and security patches to provide additional protection.

Through the Holiday Season and Beyond

Small warehouses can still get ahead of the holiday rush if they can get their hands on secure mobile technology solutions that simplify or automate tasks. Though it may seem like a small step, it can go a long way to eliminating chronic pain points and empowering lean teams to keep up with demand. It can also help small businesses overcome labor shortages, providing both an incentive to win over prospective digital native hires and a way to increase the output of the existing labor force.

Mobility solutions, when combined with barcoding systems, RFID and intelligent workflow software, can automate data capture and task assignments and take the guesswork out of locationing and decision making. This, in turn, helps improve the accuracy of operations and makes workers more efficient at a time when it matters most. 

Amanda Honig is SMB industry lead with Zebra Technologies, a provider of enterprise-level data capture and automatic identification solutions.

About the Author

Amanda Honig

Amanda Honig is SMB industry lead with Zebra Technologies, a provider of enterprise-level data capture and automatic identification solutions.

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