CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
November 13, 2019
Forward Thinking

Mobility, partial automation dominate in the warehouse

By 2024, six out of 10 companies will use warehouse automation to enhance the human element, not replace it, Zebra Technologies study shows.

Warehouses and distribution centers will focus on worker mobility and partial automation strategies as they work to enhance facility efficiency over the next five years, according to a Zebra Technologies Warehousing Vision Study released this week.

Three-quarters of the logistics IT and operations professionals the technology firm surveyed said that human interaction remains a key part of their "optimal operation balance," noting that automation strategies that require some human involvement or that augment worker performance by equipping them with mobile devices is the preferred way forward.

Mark Wheeler, Zebra's director of supply chain solutions, pointed to the use of robotics and automation to reduce transportation and non-value-added walk time in the warehouse as one example, adding that the use of sensor technology and intelligent automation to enhance worker performance will also grow in the years ahead.

"The hard stuff, for the most part, is still being done by human labor," Wheeler said, emphasizing the need for flexible, scalable technology that can help accomplish complex warehousing and distribution tasks. "It's more critical than ever [that workers] have the right technology to do those jobs."

Although the study revealed a clear understanding of the need to automate in the warehouse and DC, it also showed that many professionals in manufacturing, transportation and logistics, retail, post and parcel delivery, and wholesale distribution markets don't know where to begin. Study findings showed that:

  • More than three-quarters (77 percent) of respondents agree that augmenting workers with technology is the best way to introduce automation in the warehouse, but only 35 percent said they have a clear understanding of where to start automating;
  • By 2024, 61 percent of decision makers plan to enable partial automation or labor augmentation with technology in the warehouse;
  • Three-quarters of respondents said they believe human interaction is part of their optimal operational balance, with 39 percent citing partial automation (some human involvement) and 34 percent citing augmentation (equipping workers with devices) as their preference;
  • Decision makers said they anticipate using robotics/bots for inbound inventory management (24 percent), outbound packing (22 packing), and goods in/receiving (20 percent) by 2024.

Respondents also emphasized the need to modernize and rethink their warehouse fulfillment strategies, with most saying they will expand their facilities and their facility network over the next five years. Study findings showed that:

  • Eighty-seven percent of decision makers said they are currently in the process of or planning to expand the size of their warehouses by 2024, with 82 percent anticipating an increase in the number of warehouses during this timeframe;
  • Fifty-nine percent of respondents cited capacity utilization as a significant expected challenge and said they plan to address it by expanding the size of their warehouse;
  • Sixty percent of organizations cited labor recruitment and/or labor efficiency and productivity among their top challenges, with 63 percent noting an immediate focus on individual or team productivity outcomes;
  • IT/technology utilization was identified both as the most anticipated operational challenge (61 percent) of the next five years and a desired long-term outcome for increased asset visibility, real-time guidance, and data-driven performance.  

Zebra Technologies surveyed 1,400 IT and operations professionals globally across the manufacturing, transportation and logistics, retail, post and parcel delivery, and wholesale distribution markets for its Warehousing Vision Study.

Victoria Kickham, an editor at large for Supply Chain Quarterly, started her career as a newspaper reporter in the Boston area before moving into B2B journalism. She has covered manufacturing, distribution and supply chain issues for a variety of publications in the industrial and electronics sectors, and now writes about everything from forklift batteries to omnichannel business trends for Supply Chain Quarterly's sister publication, DC Velocity.

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