Warehouse of the future

Robots, drones and algorithms are radically altering the way warehouses operate, increasing efficiency and reducing risk

Warehouses have always been the heart of the supply chain, taking in items from suppliers and pumping them out to stores. Over the past few decades, retailers have tried to make this operational heart beat a little faster with productivity and efficiency improvements. But the competitive demands of ecommerce have taken things to a whole new level.

Rather than transporting pallets to bricks-​and-​mortar stores, many businesses are now sending individual items to individual customers and they’re overhauling their warehouse operations to ensure items arrive as quickly as possible.

“Automation will bring many benefits to the supply chain, such as easing the pressures caused by a lack of workforce and promoting higher productivity,” says Rebecca Green, head of insight at Wincanton. “It can either substitute workers by undertaking some of the simpler, more repetitive tasks or augment workers’ efforts, expanding their capability and allowing them to achieve more and produce better quality work in a shorter space of time.”

Modern automated storage and retrieval systems, for example, allow for much better height utilisation within the warehouse. The accuracy of these systems can also greatly reduce the time it takes to retrieve a pallet. In the most cutting-​edge warehouses, algorithms often determine where items should be stored and augmented reality smartglasses guide picking personnel to them. In fact, robots increasingly bring crates of items to picking stations, minimising the amount of walking and lifting picking personnel have to do.

Pioneering solutions

The online-​only supermarket Ocado has built its entire operations around highly automated warehouses, the most advanced of which features more than a thousand cube-​shaped robots that pick and pack grocery items. The company is now building automated warehouses for other retailers too, many of which are keen to stay one step ahead of Amazon, which has also deployed fleets of robots in its vast warehouses.

Technologies pioneered by these companies are now beginning to spread throughout the logistics industry. But given the cost and complexity of installing some of these solutions, it’s important to identify whether they’re truly a good fit for the business.

The future of many companies will depend on how well they organise and manage interactions between humans and automation

Rebecca Green, Wincanton

“The key thing for us is to make sure we’re spending on the right technologies,” says Richard Cawston, managing director of the European supply chain at XPO Logistics. “We look at technology and automation that can improve productivity, but also quality and accuracy. With such a large and diverse customer base, we’ve found there are very few solutions that are one size fits all. Any technology we use needs to be flexible enough to handle anticipated changes in what our customers want. When we evaluate automated solutions, we must be able to tailor them to fit very specific requirements.”

XPO is working with Nestlé on a futuristic 638,000-square-foot distribution centre in Leicestershire, which will rapidly dispatch Nestlé products to supermarkets and other sites and customers across the country. “We call it the warehouse of the future for consumer-​packaged goods,” says Mr Cawston.

The facility, which is scheduled to open in 2020, will feature state-​of-​the-​art automation, including advanced sortation systems and robotics. Fixed robotic arms will pick goods and pack pallets, for instance, and automated aerial drones will check inventory on high shelving units. Predictive data will be used for workforce planning and to forecast customer orders based on weather patterns and seasonal demand. The facility will also house an XPO technology laboratory that will act as a launch pad for future innovations.

Collaborative working

One area where robots still struggle in comparison to humans is their ability to deal with anomalies like uneven floors or damaged pallets. People can deal with these problems on the fly; robots tend to stop in their tracks and throw up their hands, metaphorically speaking.

That said, robots aren’t capable of suffering serious injury, which makes them ideally suited to many warehouse environments. People can easily slip or trip and injure themselves, which might put them out of action for days or even weeks. A damaged robot, on the other hand, can easily be swapped for an identical model, minimising any disruption to the operation of the warehouse.

Perhaps the ideal scenario is a warehouse that takes full advantage of the abilities of both humans and machines. “We believe people are at the very heart of logistics and logistics without people is a prospect we reject,” says Ms Green. “However, the future of many companies will depend on how well they organise and manage interactions between humans and automation.”