CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
November 11, 2019
Forward Thinking

Rise of warehouse automation changes site selection plans for e-commerce DCs

Fully autonomous logistics still decades away, but robots are already changing warehouse floor plans, ceiling heights, Cushman and Wakefield says.

Rising demand for same-day delivery is changing the face of industrial real estate, requiring last-mile DCs to be located in urban locations and forcing distribution hubs to be built with the high ceilings and very flat floors needed for warehouse robotics, a new report says.

With the adoption of disruptive supply chain technologies forecast to double in the next five years, commercial real estate (CRE) for logistics will increasingly be built for both people and robots, according to the Chicago-based realty firm Cushman and Wakefield.

More specifically, the adoption of industrial robots and collaborative robotics (cobots) are expected to double by 2021, which has major implications for the 60 percent of U.S. logistics real estate inventory that's more than 20 years old, according to the Aug. 13 report "Tech Disruptors and the Supply Chain: Robots, Drones, and Autonomous Vehicles."

Bar chart: U.S. Supply of Industrial Robots U.S. supply of industrial robots
Diagram: Design considerations for large warehouses to mitigate risk of obsolescence Design considerations for large warehouses to mitigate risk of obsolescence

At the same time, technology is also swiftly changing the practice of last-mile delivery services outside the four walls of the warehouse, with remote logistics locations benefitting from an increasingly autonomous logistics strategy of self-driving trucks and platooning vehicles that automatically follow each other down the highway, the report found.

While fully autonomous logistics is still decades away, these changes will affect the speed, accuracy, and cost of delivery of products, Cushman and Wakefield said. In turn, those sinking transportation costs will make remote warehouse locations more attractive, boosting real estate demand in secondary and tertiary markets in comparison to major port markets such as Los Angeles and Inland Empire, those close to large population centers like New Jersey, and in major distribution hubs including Chicago and Atlanta.

As those changes play out, the logistics map will be redrawn to some extent, the report found. For example, over half of the total industrial inventory in the U.S. has indoor clearance heights below 28 feet, even as some technologies—such as advanced automation/robotics—require higher ceilings of 32 to 36 feet.

However, closer to urban cores, warehouse/distribution facilities will be smaller and less automated than the regional distribution centers which focus on labels, stocking, and picking. In fact, infill locations will more than likely need to maintain lower ceiling heights for high-velocity goods, Cushman and Wakefield said.

At the same time, robots will have a rising profile in last-mile delivery. While drones get more attention, there will likely be quicker and wider adoption of rolling, ground-based, final-delivery "bots," the firm said. That transition will boost demand for urban warehousing for high-velocity goods, and likely encourage tenants to mitigate the costs of expensive urban locations by exploring multi-tenancy and asset sharing.

While supply chain automation will undoubtedly result in some job losses, the sector is actually suffering from a skills shortage, featuring forecasted labor shortages in trucking (174,000 by 2026) and manufacturing (2.4 million by 2028), the firm said. Robots will make up for that shortfall and improve efficiencies, particularly for those jobs with safety issues, repetitive tasks, or as augmented decision making tools. Any remaining job losses will be offset by some workers being retrained for the right skills and completely new jobs being created in which people and robots collaborate, so-called "cobots," according to the report.

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