With US eCommerce sales expected to reach nearly $500 billion by 2018, retailers and third-party logistics (3PLs) providers are retooling their warehouse and distribution centers to meet this increase in demand. Many have already implemented hardware- and software-based automation systems, but even those can quickly become obsolete in today's hyper-connected, always-on world in which customers expect near-instant fulfillment of their purchases. However, there are several new technologies used in fulfillment that can enable businesses to meet this demand.
New Technologies Used in Fulfillment
Retailers are implementing several new technologies to automate the supply chain in eCommerce fulfillment centers and increase productivity, including advanced conveyor systems, pick to light and put to light systems, automated guided vehicles (AGV), radio frequency identification (RFID) scanning devices and wearable devices, voice-picking technologies, sorting and material handling systems, and robotics. The idea is to speed up the fulfillment process, reduce human error, and ultimately save retailers money. That's not to say that humans won't be involved in the fulfillment process: they'll be using automation technologies to bring the "goods-to-person" rather than the old and inefficient days when associates had to wander around the warehouse looking for the right products to package for delivery.
Warehouse Management and Control Systems
To orchestrate these new technologies used in eCommerce fulfillment centers, retailers must implement smart, software-based warehouse management and control systems (WMS/WCS). These must be able to exchange real-time data with voice-directed or pick/put-to light systems, high-output conveyor systems, sortation technologies, and robotics while keeping accurate track of inventory levels at all times. By implementing WMS and WCS systems, retailers can achieve more efficient shipping, minimize shipping expense, maximize productivity, integrate seamlessly with critical back-end ERP systems, and more.
As usual, Amazon has been at the forefront of innovation in eCommerce fulfillment by purchasing robotics company Kiva Systems in 2012. By 2015, the eCommerce giant had implemented 30,000 robots in its fulfillment centers. Since then, new robotics technologies have emerged that are designed for unloading, bin retrieval, and pallet stacking. Some have built-in 3-D vision sensors that can distinguish the size of a carton to retrieve and determine how to stack on a shipping pallet most efficiently. In other words, the robot will place larger packages at the base of the stack and smaller cartons on top. Stationary robots with movable arms can perform a number of tasks as well, including unloading trailers of cartons, picking orders, and stacking pallets.
While still nascent, retailers are also beginning to deploy drones in warehouses. Since eCommerce fulfillment centers process such a large variety of products, many retailers have started building data centers vertically to house them. Remotely-operated drones controlled by WMS and WCM systems can reach products in high places more safely and effectively than a human operating a forklift.
Overall, new technologies used in fulfillment are not intended to displace humans but rather make their jobs easier, increase productivity, improve accuracy, and ultimately make the business more profitable. These are essential for retailers to stay competitive in the eCommerce and increasingly mobile commerce world.
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