Five innovations moving the modern warehouse

As e-commerce expands, telematics, automation help keep pace as consumers and retailers evolve.

By Erica Moyer and Shannon Curtis, The Raymond Corporation November 14, 2018

The digital age has changed the way consumers shop and how retailers sell their products. As e-commerce continues to grow, it is reshaping how warehouses, distribution centers, and their supply chains operate. This tremendous marketplace shift also has influenced the types of products and services material handling manufacturers offer.

Fueling this market transformation are the e-commerce demands for quicker response times and lower delivery costs. To meet these requirements and support the next generation’s needs, investment in new technology is fundamental. As seen in the Zebra Technologies, Warehouse Vision 2020 Global Survey, the future warehouse is rooted in how technologies synergize to create an integrated network. Key innovations creating this level of digital integration and advancement include data and analytics, wearable technology, voice recognition technology, alternative energy solutions, higher lift trucks, and automation.

As warehouses and distribution centers look to keep pace with marketplace demands, adapting and implementing these five trends will be fundamental for facilities.

1. Telematics systems integration

Quicker turnaround times means more equipment uptime. Regularly scheduled truck maintenance was once a common warehouse practice to help reduce or avoid unexpected breakdowns. Now, manufacturers can stay ahead of potential truck issues with predictive maintenance, as technological advancements can proactively pinpoint when maintenance is needed. Telematics systems monitor operating parameters in real time, during normal operating hours, so warehouses can use predictive maintenance to help determine when a truck is ready for service, ensuring it is always operating at its best.

Predictive maintenance can uncover truck inefficiencies before they become problematic or result in downtime. The aggregated data that telematics systems collect can expose vehicle damage or inefficient operator patterns. These findings can lead to improved processes that drive operator accountability, reduce fleet and product damage, and minimize risk management—all key factors needed to increase productivity in today’s busy warehouse environment.

Telematics systems are just the beginning. Data collection and analytics tools are only going to grow in importance and value as integrated technology gives warehouses more fleet visibility to meet e-commerce demands and expectations. The visibility and insights telematics systems offer now play a vital role in monitoring operator accountability, reducing fleet and product damage, and staying up to date on fleet maintenance needs—helping plants run better and be managed smarter. Telematics systems have become a must-have, not a nice-to-have, in today’s warehouse environment.

2. Advanced order picking technology

Increased SKU growth is forcing warehouses to look at their current picking operations. As a general rule, 80% of customer demand dictates 20% of facilities’ fast-moving SKUs. Due to this, lift truck equipment manufacturers are offering solutions geared toward increased pick slot access on the second—and sometimes third—load beams.

Pick-to-light technologies use colored LED lights to indicate which products are ready to be picked and/or placed throughout the warehouse, allowing operators to move quickly and confidently from one location to the next with these easy-to-follow visual cues. This technology also helps accommodate slotting changes, reduces picking error, and maximizes operator productivity. Given the technology’s heighten popularity, the pick-to-light market growth rate is projected to grow 57% by 2023.

On account of increased order picking needs, equipment manufacturers are now integrating this technology into trucks to help maximize an operator’s workday. Pick-to-light systems work in conjunction with other asset technologies, such as warehouse management systems, voice picking, and scanning solutions, to further increase productivity.

The voice picking solutions use data to create work assignments for operators. The consistent dialogue between the system and operator is another strategy that improves picking accuracy and speed. When these capabilities are integrated, operations are more efficient and product damage can be reduced.

3. Higher lift trucks

As SKU demands are growing, so is the need for larger facilities. Due to location issues or the cost of expanding horizontally, many sites have determined vertical growth is the fastest and most economical option.

With increased racking capabilities in taller facilities, these buildings can optimize more space and more product can be stored to support these high number of SKUs. This is especially evident in urban areas, where warehouses are being forced to build up, not out, to maximize space.

To accommodate this need, manufacturers are designing trucks that can reach higher than ever before and store heavy pallets in almost any location. Some high-capacity reach trucks allow for pallet storage from eight to 10 levels, which has the potential to increase storage capacity by 25% for some warehouses.

4. Longer-lasting, energy-efficient batteries

Longer operating hours at warehouses and distribution centers call for increased run times. According to research, lithium-ion battery deployment will grow by 55% each year for five years. Lithium-ion battery growth is likely due to its overall increased use in the United States and its popularity in the manufacturing industry.

For trucks to operate longer hours to support higher e-commerce demands, they need batteries that extend daily operating time. Lithium-ion batteries can decrease the number of times trucks become inoperable due to a dead or low battery, increasing efficiency and keeping trucks powered for the long haul to support productivity needs.

Some trucks that feature lithium-ion batteries come with controller area network (CAN) communication. A CAN enables the truck and lithium-ion pack to communicate with each other, instantly sharing commands and information for optimum performance. Lithium onboard battery management systems allow operators to schedule charge times, provide notifications when charging is required, and monitor charging and usage to prevent overcharging and discharging events.

5. Automated solutions

Recent e-commerce growth also is pushing the demand for more automated solutions within warehouse facilities. Automated solutions are key to addressing the labor gap, and many companies use this technology to fulfill repetitive tasks. This means employees’ time can be used for more value-added jobs. In the fight for top talent across all industries, leveraging automation to complete more physical and repeatable tasks can help streamline operations and increase workforce productivity.

Equipment manufacturers understand the pressures warehouses and distribution centers face and are evolving their technology solutions to address these increasing demands. The economic growth and digital advancements that exist today bring an opportunity for plant engineers and managers to push for a more integrated facility where all technologies work together to create a more efficient supply chain network.

Erica Moyer is product manager, pallet trucks and stackers; Shannon Curtis is product manager, orderpicker line for The Raymond Corporation.