Warehouses and DCs will continue to implement technology-based material handling solutions in 2019 as they strive to work faster, smarter, and with fewer human resources. And though the use of futuristic technologies such as drones and augmented reality is on the horizon, most experts agree that the major trend in the year ahead will be the expanded use of more recently proven technologies—such as goods-to-person fulfillment systems—that can deliver the best return on investment (ROI).
"Everyone wants to move fast," says Norm Saenz, managing director at supply chain solutions consulting firm St. Onge, pointing to the buzz around robotics, autonomous vehicles, and similar cutting-edge technologies. "What they have to do, though, is make sure it's the right investment."
Daniel Johnson, an account executive with supply chain consulting firm Fortna, agrees, adding that the more "tried and true" automated material handling solutions make the most sense for many organizations and will become more widely used in the year ahead. He points to shuttle systems, automated truck loaders, and robotic depalletizers as examples of technologies in use and delivering an ROI for many clients today.
"Looking out to 2019, we'll see more adoption of some of those existing technologies," he says, emphasizing growth in goods-to-person picking systems in particular. "We've seen a massive return on investment there, from both a productivity and quality standpoint."
Both Saenz and Johnson predict that warehouse software implementation will rise in 2019 as well, pointing to growing demand for warehouse execution systems (WES) that improve communication and order flow throughout a facility. And in a nod to at least one "futuristic" trend, they agree that more widespread use of autonomous mobile robots is in store for 2019 too.
Here's a look at how goods-to-person picking, software implementation, and autonomous mobile robots will shape the warehouse and DC landscape in the year ahead.
GOODS-TO-PERSON ON THE RISE
A surge in e-commerce sales and the resulting need to meet omnichannel fulfillment demands is driving much of the change across the warehousing and logistics industry, and it's certainly a driver in goods-to-person fulfillment, says Marvin Logan, vice president of consulting services for systems integrator Bastian Solutions. A shift to smaller orders containing multiple stock-keeping units (SKUs) has changed the picking landscape for many organizations, he says, pushing them toward processes and technologies that can reduce a worker's travel time, improve overall productivity levels, and minimize errors. With goods-to-person fulfillment, machines retrieve products and bring them directly to the picker, eliminating the need for the worker to roam the aisles to collect items for an order. Technologies range from simple conveyor-based systems to more complex automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), as well as robotic solutions. As technology advances, the goods-to-person landscape is expanding with even more choices, Logan adds.
"There are new players with new technologies that will be introduced in the next year or two, to [provide] even more options in goods-to-person for fulfillment," he explains. "We've seen a lot of it, and we'll see it pick up into next year."
Saenz agrees, emphasizing that a measured approach to implementing automated solutions often works best. For example, he says he expects to see greater use of conveyor systems in the year ahead as organizations with very basic warehouse and DC operations ease their way into automation. A natural progression often involves moving from simple racks and industrial trucks to conveyors and warehouse management software (WMS) before plunging into more advanced AS/RS types of systems, he adds.
"We think a customer should compare the more proven technology against robotics and the [more complex] offerings and decide if that's enough for them," Saenz says. "Companies definitely want to learn about the newest technology and see if it makes sense for them, but if there's a level right below that provides what you need for less [money] and [a quicker] ROI—then that's the right decision."
WES GAINS MOMENTUM
Experts say more organizations are purchasing software to manage and control warehouse and DC operations today, and that the trend will continue in 2019.
"There are still a lot of companies with legacy systems that don't provide a lot of the functionality you need today to handle different orders and more orders," Saenz explains. "You'll see a lot more legacy systems continue to turn over to the bigger WMS systems, and you'll see more on the controls side as well. All this equipment and automation needs good software to run it."
Johnson agrees and points to the growth in warehouse execution systems (WES), which help highly automated warehouses and DCs connect different systems and functions in one platform, improving communication across the entire operation. As Johnson explains, a WES "pulls" various functions from a traditional WMS, such as waving, order release, order diverting and so forth, and combines those functions with a traditional warehouse control system (WCS), which controls equipment, automation, and routing. With this additional layer of communication, he says, organizations have greater visibility across the operation and can improve the flow of orders through the warehouse.
"With the WES, I've now got a layer that's 'talking' between each piece of automation," he explains. "We will definitely see more use of that ahead."
Logan agrees, adding that the need for better software increases as companies adopt new processes for filling e-commerce and omnichannel orders. Rather than push large batches of orders to the DC for fulfillment, companies must pull orders to various parts of the warehouse or DC to fill those smaller, more diverse orders, he explains, creating a greater need for communication and visibility across the facility.
"That will increase, and the trend will continue into next year," he says.
AUTONOMOUS MOBILE ROBOTS FIND THEIR PLACE
Saenz says he expects more companies to start using "Kiva-type systems" in the warehouse and DC, referring to the compact orange robots used in Amazon.com's DCs to ferry racks of products to order pickers. (Although Amazon took the Kiva robots off the market after it acquired the parent company, Kiva Systems LLC, in 2012, other robotic developers, including GreyOrange, Swisslog, and Otto Motors, are introducing similar solutions today.) Such solutions are especially helpful in automating the picking process, resulting in greater productivity, Saenz says. Similarly, Johnson and Logan point to an increase in shuttle systems that can be used to retrieve products from storage and deliver them to the picker.
"Picking is where most of the labor is" in a distribution center or fulfillment facility, Saenz explains. "So it helps to have something that is moving around [the DC], grabbing orders for you or helping you be more productive in other ways. We will see a lot more of these types of solutions [deployed] to assist in the picking process."
Saenz, Johnson, and Logan point to an increase in labor-saving technologies such as autonomous forklifts and automated guided vehicles as well.
"[These are] drawing interest, and I'm sure we'll see more of them [in use] in the next year," Logan says. "It's happening already in Europe, and I think we'll see more here. It may not make sense if you only have one or two forklifts, but if you have a fleet, it's another story."
Saenz says he thinks the use of autonomous lift trucks will skyrocket in large operations.
"[Companies can realize] big savings there—tangible savings for the warehouse," he explains.
Looking beyond the next year, consultants say that future-focused technologies such as augmented reality (AR) and more sophisticated robotics are ripe for investment and will become the next automation wave.
"Full-picking robots, each-picking robots, [human-like] bots, and augmented reality—those are more futuristic types of automation where we are seeing a lot of investment," Johnson says.