Insight: The Future of Warehouse Automation (& The Port?)

Insight: The Future of Warehouse Automation (& The Port?)

The warehouse remains one of the least explored elements of the supply chain, yet it could hold the key to the future of logistics

Warehousing doesn't have the drama of ports, nor the pizazz of the airport, yet it plays a vital role in the logistical chain and given the huge strides it's made in automation and technology, this piece explores how it could hold the key to the future of logistics.

Let's start with the very basics, what exactly is a warehouse and what is its primary function?

Put simply, warehousing is the process of storing physical inventory for sale or distribution.

Usually located near ports, logistics zones, or airports, warehouses offer temporary storage in bulk before shipping to mailing locations or shipping to end consumers.

Warehousing as the Digital Blueprint

The great advantages warehouses have over a more complex operation like a port is complete control over inventory, much more predictable trade flows and - most importantly - easier to implement technologies.

In essence, where the port is already chockablock with empties, new arrivals and stored boxes, it tries to juggle the competing elements of trucks arriving to pick up cargo, ships attempting to dock and the terminal yard needing to be sorted.

In essence, it's a jigsaw.

Famously, ports have tried to automate processes to ease this puzzle, yet have found varying levels of success, with some even creating more complexity.

One major problem is that it's not just about automating a logistics space, but having the expertise in place to master automated processes.

This is where warehousing can offer a hand to the port, as the warehouse has actively and effectively implemented automated processes that offer a microcosm of what's possible in a port.

How Warehouse Automation Works

To simplify things, warehouse automation is a process of digitally managing the movement of inventory into, within, and out of the warehouse.

Naturally, the 'digital' element implies that humans are not required for many key tasks - although they remain imperative in others.

In a warehouse, a blend of robots interface with warehouse management systems (WMS) and human workers to oversee the movement of goods.

Robots are so vital due to their efficiency and ability to reach higher heights and stack heavier weights than the average human.

Technology is so vital as it can record processes both ingoing and outgoing in real-time, connect a warehouse to the broader logistical chain and utilise big data to provide predictive analytics for optimized planning.

The Future of Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation is well underway within the warehouse, with estimates there will be 50,000 robotic warehouses globally and 4 million robots working within them by 2025, according to the European Business Review, so it stands to reason the future will be outside of the warehouse.

What this means is how the warehouse interacts with the broader chain, meaning a key theme will be supply chain visibility.

Supply chain visibility depends upon a harmonious and unified chain in which key players can share limited, but vital information that gives decision-makers the ability to strategize in advance and mitigate issues in real-time.

An associated element of this will also be how the WMS teams up with adjacent systems, such as port management systems, terminal operating systems and even the Internet of Things (IoT).

If a healthy connection can be struck between these systems, there are massive gains to be had in terms of speed, safety and sustainability.

The Port & The Warehouse

Firstly, there is an ongoing trend in newbuild and retrofitted ports to build warehousing facilities next to a port, this obviously slashes travel times and boosts efficiency, yet it's also providing a model to build port operations on.

Warehouses have used robots and automation very effectivelty, and are showing ports the value of AI and machine learning with regard to technology.

Drones are another key tool that provide new cargo-shipping modalities, but also overviews of an operation, and most importantly, the organisation of the warehouse is inspiring new visionaries in the port space such as EagleRail.

All in all, warehouse automation has a key role to play in the future chain, the use of AI, machine learning, drones, and robotics increase efficiency and productivity, and a balance is being struck between human and robot working.

Read more: The Promise and Potential of Blockchain in the Supply Chain

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Transport and Logistics ME