Technology in the Warehouse: Improving Storage & Distribution

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This demand leads to greater pressure on warehouse managers to ensure that they are achieving a high level of performance, while keeping costs to a minimum.

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The Developments in Distribution Centre Technologies

With the rise of e-commerce, consumers are becoming accustomed to delivery rates that would have previously proved impossible. This demand leads to greater pressure on warehouse managers to ensure that they are achieving a high level of performance, while keeping costs to a minimum.

In this case, although technology is one of the driving forces behind increased consumer expectation, it also presents the solution, with advances in technology helping to increase efficiency and save time on the warehouse floor.

Order picking technology

Arguably, the most noticeable area of improvement in warehouse systems can be seen in order picking technology. Up until 40 years ago, paper-based systems were standard, involving a ‘picking’ list for each employee with item codes, quantities and locations to be ticked off when found and deposited at the desired location.

With the first barcode scanners arriving in commercial businesses in 1974, the landscape of warehouse picking was entirely changed. The introduction of Radio Frequency (RF) scanning devices meant that warehouse staff were able to scan individual items, or batches of items, to confirm picking, not only saving time but also allowing companies to track stock movement in real time.

The ability to capture product or customer data with these devices has lead to more accurate inventory figures and also decreased administrative work in data processing, as all information can be automatically recorded. RF scanning devices can also be used in conjunction with visual logistics, where pickers are shown an image of the product they’ve been assigned, leading to increased accuracy.

In some larger companies, barcodes are being replaced with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags embedded in boxes of stock. These ‘smart labels’ can store product or batch information and remove the risk of barcodes becoming damaged and unreadable.

Another alternative picking system is Pick to Light, installing the technology in the shelves rather than in the hands of the picking staff. When a picker signals that he or she is free, light displays in shelving units are automatically illuminated to signal a new task, requiring the picker to touch the display to confirm acceptance of the job.

Display units at the pick location then display unit information and the final destination of the products, with the picker again required to touch the panel to confirm that action has been taken. The Pick to Light system has a very high accuracy rate and as it is not language dependent, can be more quickly processed by staff. Crucially, it can also be used for reverse picking, or the distribution of stock to other areas of the warehouse.

Moving even further from text-based systems is Voice Directed Picking, whereby picking staff wear headsets with microphones and receive spoken instructions as to the location of their next task. Once at the pick location, the picker then confirms their arrival by verbally quoting a code marked on the shelf before receiving instructions as to unit quantity and eventual destination.

The advantage of this system is that it is entirely hands-free, leaving picking staff free to better manage bulkier items and reducing time spent scanning items. This technology is particularly prevalent in the food industry, specifically in warehouses that use cold-storage, as staff in bulky gloves are no longer required to operate hand-held devices.

Warehouse Management Systems

When considering the options in picking technology, all of the above work most successfully in combination with a warehouse management system (WMS) that links together operational functions. For RF devices, the data that they provide the picker comes directly from the WMS and the information they capture is immediately fed back into the system to update stock levels and allow real-time updates to stock forecasting.

For voice directed picking systems, the instructions that are given to the picker are synthesised from data provided by the WMS. A well-designed warehouse management system streamlines warehouse logistics and enables stock ordering to reflect demand, preventing the unnecessary storage of excess stock and saving space.

Warehouse Wi-Fi

A natural progression from the radio frequency systems employed in warehouses is a move to wireless internet networks, but wifi connectivity in warehouses has traditionally presented a set of unique issues. The cavernous spaces do not lend themselves to consistent wifi coverage as modern wifi systems rely on internal walls to bounce a signal around a space.

Also, given the dynamic nature of warehouses, the regular changes in environment and equipment with built in devices, such as modern forklifts, can interfere with the signal.

This lack of consistency in environment, coupled with the inaccuracy of the directional aerials used on site can be problematic for a wireless network. However, once a functional wifi network is in place, the advantages are evident. Information from the warehouse can then be accessed remotely and integrated into other online systems with ease. Using RFID technology, pallets can be tracked around the warehouse, as can forklift trucks, leading to a greater degree of stock control.

Automated systems

Looking to the future of large-scale warehouses, the reality becomes significantly more sci-fi. Manual picking is labour intensive, requiring large numbers of staff and as technology advances, automation is becoming a more and more viable option.

As recently as earlier this year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company would be significantly increasing its use of robot technology and Amazon is predicted to have 10,000 robots at work in its warehouses by the end of the year.

The robots will be linked to a preset grid system to navigate the warehouse space and will respond to and gather the same information that pickers currently process.

Dynamic warehouses and distribution centres are always improving their technology, safety, and efficiency. At Marpak, we are committed to staying at the forefront of our industry in supplying the very best quality packaging solutions on the market, so we are consistently researching improvements in our products.

For more information about the products that we offer at Marpak Extrusions, get in touch by calling 0113 277 5518. You can also contact us online today.

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