Investing in the necessary industrial automation technologies can help end warehouse woes

Labor strikes, natural disasters, and cyberattacks are just some of the disruptions that plague the supply chain – from warehousing to distribution to fulfillment.

Such disruptions have been further highlighted over the course of the pandemic.

For all the devastation it wrought, the pandemic brought more people to online shopping. The e-commerce logistics market in South-east Asia (SEA) was reported to increase by US$58.93 billion from 2021 to 2026.

This forecast resulted from the region’s robust economic growth and ongoing innovations in inventory management and e-commerce logistics, which are pushing businesses to make significant investments in SEA to maintain growth and raise efficiency.

In terms of warehousing, the top three challenges due to increased e-commerce include:

    • Demand for faster delivery to end customers
    • Increased transportation costs
    • Inventory accuracy and visibility

The 14th Annual Zebra Global Shopper Study reported that 73% of shoppers said they prefer to have items delivered to them rather than picking them up, and 80% of retailers said they are under high pressure to offer a variety of delivery options and speeds.

The study involved more than 1,500 warehouse decision makers and associates around the world, including Asia Pacific (APAC). The APAC findings from the study include:

    • 90% of warehouse associates say positive workplace changes are happening amid labor shortage, including employers increasing remuneration, improving work conditions in other ways
    • 53% of employers report difficulty finding workers: 64% of warehouse decision-makers thus plan to augment workers with mobile devices or introduce collaboration with automation solutions in addition to mobility solutions to help ease the workload within five years
    • 59% of employers indicate training workers is challenging
    • 79% of warehouse associates say walking fewer miles per day would make their jobs more enjoyable and less stressful

Technologies for warehouse operators

“Exponential” is the right word to describe the increase in online shopping in APAC, and a corresponding increase in demand is being faced by warehouses. Technology has become available not only to address the woes of warehouse operators but also to make life easier for the worker who has to fulfill those requirements each day.

If you have ever worked in a warehouse, or have read about working in one, it is not a sedentary or stationary job but one that requires walking a number of miles each day to attend to various tasks. The volume of packages that enter a warehouse daily means that automated inspection points operate continuously for long hours, which is extremely labour-intensive if done by humans.

Industrial automation technologies – such as fixed industrial scanners and machine vision solutions – enable automatic track-and-trace of every part and package.

Fixed industrial scanners rely on trusted decode performance as items move through production, storage and fulfillment operations. Machine vision systems feature a family of smart cameras designed to anticipate issues before they impact operations.

Tan Aik Jin, APAC Vertical Solutions Lead for Manufacturing, Machine Vision/Fixed Industrial Scanning, Zebra Technologies, explained the usefulness of such technologies: “With the help of machine vision, systems will be able to notify key employees when an anomaly is discovered, assisting workers in deciding the best course of action to solve the problem. As such, businesses can avoid significant inventory, financial or customer losses.

“Furthermore, the characteristics of machine vision solutions make them ideal for production lines, for their ability to capture images and process data on-premise, allowing manufacturers to easily and quickly pick up on visual inconsistencies in labelling, packaging or product design.”

Decision making and workplace health 

Addressing the rise and impact of e-commerce, Tan said: “In addition to augmenting workers with devices and automation, five in 10 decision makers surveyed in our study said that they are using sensors or real-time location technology in a targeted or widespread manner to speed up and add more visibility to their operations.”

He believes operational speed, efficiency, and accountability will drive the tagging of inventory, equipment, packages, and even people. Real-time location systems will be used for data capture and input into digital ledger technologies, barcode scanners, and other tracking tools to provide an accurate picture of “who/what is where and when.”

“By 2027, almost six in 10 decision-makers plan to utilize real-time visibility,” he said. “A greater emphasis on automating decision-making and constantly predicting and adapting operations in real-time will help warehouses be well-placed to address the impacts of an exponential rise in e-commerce activity.”

Tan added that warehouse operators must not forget about health: “[They] need to integrate rigorous health, safety, and cleaning measures to prepare warehouses for similar health crises in the future.”

Moving forward, businesses need to stay ahead in today’s on-demand economy. That means investing in the necessary technologies.