Fulfilling consumers needs in the era of eCommerce was never simple, but the speed at which things change is quite challenging for warehouse and distribution centers.
Ensuring the warehouse can both operate optimally and quickly react to either seasonal demand or varying product demand requires a robust system.
Automation is playing no small part in achieving this.
“Elastic logistics is where the entire industry is going,” explains Chris Barber, CEO of North America, GreyOrange.
The company, which was founded in 2011 and is headquartered in Singapore, designs, manufactures and deploys advanced robotics systems for automation in warehouses, distribution and fulfillment centers.
“Looking across a company that has many warehouses, variable demands at different times of the year and at different locations, the question is how to find the most efficient way to operate,” Barber says.
To find these efficiencies the company says it's on a mission “to build the world’s first fully automated flexible warehouse.”
In order to do that the company designs a system that services the distribution center in the long run. “I don’t want to just build a warehouse that accommodates demand for three months. I want to build it for a much longer time so we have to analyze the entire operation. Many companies have thousands of orders to fill so we look at the usage and patterns and devise a system. How can I build a system that is efficient and can share assets across the building?. Can I flex up and down?"
The other issue, of course, is labor. There is both the issues of finding workers and the issue of retaining workers. “We are hearing from our logistics customers that they are often losing workers to warehouses next door to them,” says Barber.
One way to solve this problem is to create jobs that pay enough not to entice workers away. Another is to make the jobs more interesting. “As technology evolves and human work next to cobots, which are becoming more efficient, that frees up the person to do work that includes problem-solving which people find more interesting,” says Barber.
“We have seen an increase in worker productivity as well as worker satisfaction. The new jobs are better, mean more to the workers and provide more value to the organizations,” says Barber.
Changing the jobs of the warehouse worker is an important step, according to Barber, as it’s changing how we view these positions. With these changes, the warehouse jobs are worth more to everyone. “It’s awesome to see how the workers view their jobs as more valuable.”
As automation drives these changes, Barber see an even more expansive role as automation become central to our education system. “Engineers are studying robots and automation. Supply chain education includes the use of robotics. And the same is true of other fields such as agriculture, healthcare.
“We have to educate our future workforce as to what’s coming and how to stay relevant in the marketplace,” says Barber. “It’s incumber of our leaders to keep pushing forward.”
Barber already sees this progress with distribution centers who are taking ownership of how their workforce interacts with cobots.
Automation is also providing real-time data that can be minded to continually optimize operations. A key part of this learning is artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning. As machines repeat tasks they actually learn routes and can react to similar situations.
“AI is what will enable the flexibility that the warehouse will need to keep up the continuing speed of fulfillment,” says Barber.