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The Future of Smart: How tech-driven warehouses can accelerate e-commerce momentum

Global e-commerce is fueled by complex algorithms, advanced computer hardware, and robust online platforms. Its rapid evolution can be mapped in the development of personalized storefronts, mobile applications, integrated shopping cart software, and rapid payment processing systems. 

But technology is not just driving the shopping experience or the way that transactions are administered. It is also fundamentally re-defining how goods are stored, sorted and delivered. 

This second part of the e-commerce equation – logistics and supply chain management – has experienced a seismic shift thanks to advances in robotics, sensor technology, augmented reality (AR), and the Internet of Things (IoT). In fact, it’s not unrealistic to say that global e-commerce and digital marketplaces would be only a shadow of what they are today without equivalent innovations in logistics.

While technology is fortifying the supply chain from beginning to end, its impact in warehousing is becoming particularly critical. Today, with demand still surging due to the pandemic, the smart warehouse is taking center stage as companies look to increase efficiency, manage staffing shortages, maintain social distancing, and boost productivity.

Let’s take a closer look.

Understanding the smart warehouse

By integrating automated systems into the fabric of facility operations, the smart warehouse is designed for efficiency and collaboration. Automated, interconnected technologies can be used for virtually all repetitive or physical tasks in a facility, freeing up human hands for more complex, value-adding duties. Think about the full range of activities that take place in a warehouse: goods are received, identified, sorted, pulled and packed for shipment. Through every phase, robotic technology, sensors and internet-enabled devices in a smart warehouse work together to streamline and speed functionality.

At DHL Express, for instance, we have partnered with Dorabot, an AI-powered robotic logistic solutions provider, to implement sortation robots at our facilities. After a successful pilot, the first two robotic sorters were deployed at our Miami, Florida service center in June 2020, significantly boosting productivity and service quality. Each “TMBot” is capable of sorting over 1,000 small parcels per hour, a capacity that has allowed DHL to rapidly manage record parcel volumes driven by pandemic-related surges in e-commerce. DHL Express will continue to expand its robotic capabilities, giving our teams the tools they need to move quickly and accurately, and allowing them to focus on their own critical tasks.

Prioritizing employee safety

Improved efficiency also translates into a safer work environment. Repetitive tasks like picking, as well as more physically dangerous jobs, can be assigned for automation, and at the same time the risks of congestion are minimized on the warehouse floor. In addition, robotic technology itself is designed for safety, with proximity sensors providing enhanced special awareness, reducing potential collision dangers.

Achieving greater transparency and control

Smart warehouse technology not only improves efficiency and safety in the facility, it also allows for the company-wide visibility of data – information that can also be quickly shared with stakeholders and customers. As goods are received and moved in a facility, automated systems and internet-enabled tracking mean that information is constantly updated, giving companies greater control and allowing their customers to quickly locate needed goods.

In Singapore, a large warehouse designed for Tetra Pak is a good example of the efficiency and transparency of today’s technology. For this facility, DHL Supply Chain implemented the first “digital twin” of a warehouse in the Asia-Pacific region, creating a virtual environment that is continuously fed with real-time data from the physical warehouse. By mapping changes in real time, DHL allows Tetra Pak to achieve maximum efficiency in tracking and moving goods.

What it means for your business

If your company operates a warehouse (or multiple facilities), investing in automation and enhanced digital tracking can help you achieve multiple goals at the same time. Similarly, working with distributors that use smart systems will bolster your effectiveness. Consider that COVID-19 has not only increased e-commerce activity, it has led to a labor shortage at warehouses around the globe. Automation can help address this challenge. At the same time, it offers the ability to monitor operations, remotely control access to restricted areas, manage environmental temperature controls, and better track and boost team performance. Automation also helps reduce errors and improve productivity.

Another critical benefit of the smart warehouse? Supply chain resiliency. Automated processes allow a facility to scale up and down on volume quickly, and as the pandemic has shown, the ability to swiftly react to market conditions is essential. According to a Deloitte survey, 80% of retailers say they will invest in supply chain resiliency in the future.

Ultimately, the goal of cutting-edge warehouse technology is not to replace valuable staff, it is to provide your teams with the support and tools they need to excel. And that’s a goal worth putting at the top of your organization’s to-do list.

Published: May 2021

Images: AdobeStock; DHL