What will the warehouse of the future look like? Andrew Hoyle reports

The warehouse of today is already a partnership of human and machine. Automation and robots have replaced some of the traditionally labour-intensive roles within this environment. This partnership, which removes a requirement for people to perform time-consuming and monotonous tasks, frees up time to complete other fulfilling and value-adding roles.

Modern retail and manufacturing supply chains are a challenging and complicated mix of tradition and digital innovation. With consumer behaviours evolving rapidly, warehouse automation can facilitate a more agile and effective response to logistical challenges. In some cases, it can be seen as a necessary step to survive.

As the supply chain evolves to meet growing customer expectations of speed and cost, new technologies will continue to be deployed within the warehouse. These new technologies, such as Augmented Reality (AR), robotics and drones, are designed to make people more efficient, not replace them.

Rising warehouse property costs, increased workplace regulation and fierce competition for warehouse labour, mean the introduction of the right automation solutions as part of operations does not only tackle these issues but can also introduce significant efficiencies.

It doesn’t need to be ‘all or nothing’ when it comes to deployment of automation in the warehouse. Point automation, for example, describes the deployment of modular technologies which can be built on over time. These solutions can incorporate automated guided vehicles, automated loading and off-loading, and robotic handling. Advancing this one step further to semi automation involves integrating automated systems across multiple tasks such as layer picking, garment handling and high density storage and retrieval systems. Full automation comprises purpose built solutions which support the entire fulfilment process, automated picking systems and high bay automation.

Wincanton customer KraftHeinz needed a solution to replace ageing technology at its National Distribution Centre and Wincanton led a project to bring in the latest robotic layer picking. Testing and proving the concept off-site minimised operational risk before the new system was integrated with existing automation systems during live operations. The new technology now allows automated handling of over 97 per cent of product lines, a significant improvement of previous generation layer pickers. The fully automated process also provides greater accuracy, productivity and throughput potential.

So, if we already see automation within the warehouse, what can we expect to see from the warehouse of the future?

In the near-term, a steady increase in automation can be expected. As new warehouses are built with rising customer expectations front of mind, automation will play a pivotal role in optimising these operations. For example, loading and unloading, which was traditionally a highly labour-intensive task placing considerable physical demands on people, can now be completed by automation. And picking, which was once a slow paper-based process, can now be completed by pickers wearing AR devices directing them through the warehouse using the most efficient route.

The idea held by some, that humans will be entirely replaced by robots in the supply chain, is very unlikely. And for several reasons. Most notably, machines are fantastically efficient at doing the job they’re built for. But their limitation is that they can only perform this one role for which they are designed. Humans, on the other hand, are extremely versatile and can turn their hand to a vast number of roles with ease. Using technology to enhance the natural ability and versatility of people is a far more efficient way to optimise operations.

Logistics is about people, and that is a valued heritage which will not be pushed aside by technology. Certainly, jobs will change in vehicles, warehouses and distribution centres; traditional repetitive tasks requiring little expertise will reduce. Redefining the place of the human worker within a more technologically advanced environment will be vital. For example, automated pick and pack solutions will mean fewer warehouse operatives, but new skills and working practice will be needed for humans and machines to comfortably co-exist within the logistics industry.

Technology is playing its part in creating better and safer work environments and processes. It is this partnership of people and technology which we are likely see grow and develop within optimised warehouse operations.

Andrew Hoyle is Head of Automation at Wincanton, the largest British logistics firm, which provides supply chain solutions to some of the world’s most admired brands across a wide range of industries including retail, construction, defence and energy. As a trusted and respected business partner, it designs and implements services and solutions that range from setting up and operating distribution networks through to bonded warehouses, technology hosting, container transport and storage.