The move of retail space to the digital landscape has put an increased pressure on warehousing operations for manufactures and stores. Omnichannel fulfillment strategies are placing increased pressure on distribution centers and changing the nature of storage and shipping. Technology seems to be the last respite to help warehouse operations catch up to supply chains with shifting nodes and new lanes.
Information platforms for warehouse and DC management are moving to PC and Web platforms, as pencil and paper finally goes the way of the dinosaur for many mid-sized firms. This may seem like a trend that has firmly planted itself in our industry, but recent surveys still place technology-based solutions to current space, time and cost crunches in the near future.
In the present, we are experiencing increased complexity as manufacturers expand SKUs, add in new distribution points, and find themselves forced to add storage for goods and workers to keep the picking and fulfillment processes running smoothly.
Control over inventory flow is the first area where new technologies will be introduced into the workplace. These will encompass the picking and filling process by linking known inventory to known orders; mobile devices attached to worker’s arms or pickers now help keep this information up-to-date in real time.
These systems make strong investments because they can be expanded to encompass other areas of materials processing. For manufacturers this can expand to controls for inbound raw materials and good needs throughout production to outbound delivery. As goods are processed and move their way through plants and warehouses, dynamic systems can monitor storage requirements to establish historic trends and usage requirements.
Manufacturers no longer need to risk storing materials or products in less-secure spaces or have them face the elements until DC space clears up. Smart systems can also keep track of logistics partners to monitor if certain companies or modes tend to reach backlogs or have more delays.
The WMS, YMS, and ERP systems that were budding just a few years ago are now becoming a single solution from off-the-shelf software providers. These simplified solutions give smaller manufacturers and DCs the chance to affordably scale their operations, facilitating expansion or work without equipment or, in some instances, workforce.
The smart watch may make the wrist a compelling location for consumer-facing electronics, but warehouses and manufacturers are hoping for the smart forearm.
New, flexible screens that provide scanning options and tie directly back to WMS and YMS systems are giving workers the ability to pick and fill with increased speed and accuracy. Incorporating a factory-grade wireless network to the warehouse improves the speed of the platform so workers can ensure they pick the right goods and are not held up by inventory sheets that fail to update.
These devices can also interact with RFID technologies to track worker and good movement through the final stages of the outbound process. Monitoring which employee fills an order and who loads it, all in real-time, can help process engineers determine if there are improvements that can be made to increase efficiency.
Worker conditions can be improved through this data management and, as Amazon has learned from recent strikes and a BBC exposé, improvements to efficiency that reduce walking and standing during shifts produce happier, healthier fulfillment professionals.
Inventory management systems that track materials and products throughout their entire manufacturing lifecycle have to be robust enough to match company needs.
Being robust now means that IMS can capture data in non-traditional or unique fields. Whether these details rest with the lot, worker, or specific package, the system must be able to track the data and provide recommendations based on gathered information.
Again, manufacturers and DCs are looking into the realm of big data and analytics. Modern platforms need the storage and processing power to track the multitude of data points, with a strong analytics engine to turn all of that data into actionable information. Cloud systems make this a likely possibility, even affordable for most, because processing strength for the engine can be scaled as it is needed without any on-site infrastructure requirements.
The next stage for these systems will be addressing purchasing data from retailers and beyond. Future systems will need to manage inventory for traditional shipping windows as well as understand the long-term evolution of a product’s lifecycle. Proper storage for goods and materials will become part of a larger analysis of the manufacturer’s role in the supply chain.
The government often plays a side note in these future forecasts and recent events suggest that this may be the right role for it in predictions.
The recent federal shutdown has been analyzed, debated, and prodded to find any hidden gems or concerns that will slowly spread into the supply chain or the economy at large.
Overall, the economy is doing well; job losses largely mitigated though the Office of Management and Budget says up to 120,000 fewer private-sector jobs were created. Manufacturing has taken somewhat of a hit but was able to shrug off most of the ill effects.
According to the Institute for Supply Management, economic output was able to keep pace so that the fourth quarter will improve. New orders during the shutdown period rose somewhat, led by an increase in exports over September.
Even if the ISM paints a rosier picture than what happens, a charge often throw at its readings, China has seen an uptick in its economy and the EU is continuing to claw its way back. The world looks stronger after our brinksmanship has passed, and that puts American manufacturing in a strong position for growth.
Now all we need is the federal government to pay its bills and keep the lights on.