The overwhelming growth of e-commerce, omnichannel purchasing, the internet of things applied to the supply chain, electronic data interchange, the increasingly necessary coordination of the physical flow with the flow of information throughout the logistics chain means that it is modernising and using hyper-connected systems through the cloud that generate a huge amount of data and information that we must be able to manage. Faced with this increasingly present reality, we must move towards a new warehouse concept: the smart warehouse.
A warehouse capable of integrating and managing technologies in its processes to get the maximum performance and productivity out of them.
ERP with integrated WMS
This is the first and most important technology to acquire, without this premise everything else is unthinkable. We refer to both management software because we consider that the collaboration between both systems is what opens the doors to technological innovation and logistics 4.0. The ERP system will be in charge of the integral management of the logistics organisation and the WMS system will be more specifically in charge of the organisation of the warehouse.
Although in themselves, they are already part of the technologies that must be applied today for the management of any warehouse, when both work together, they enable the coordination of practically the entire logistics chain thanks to the use of the Internet, electronic data interchange, Big Data processing or cloud computing.
Technology and picking
As one of the most important tasks in the operation of any warehouse, technological assistance for picking or order preparation is not only one of the most frequent but also one of the most affordable. Given that picking accounts for almost 65% of operating costs, as it involves moving, handling, packaging, preparation, consolidation, palletising, etc., it is not surprising that there are numerous technologies aimed at improving the efficiency of the system.
- Pick to light/ Putt o light/ Pick by voice – These are very intuitive picking solutions that reduce human errors, highly recommended for preparing large quantities of orders in an agile and efficient manner. Combined with a put-to-light, with the same picking action, several orders can be handled simultaneously, making it ideal, for example, for large quantities of orders of a few references in waves or for highly complex picking operations such as hardware or hardware supplies in general. They also allow several operators to pick the same order.
- Pick to light – The guidance system is very simple, on the front of the picking rack are installed displays with buttons that light up indicating the position from which it must be extracted and the exact quantity to be taken.
- Put to light – Same as the previous case, but in this case guiding the operator to place the extracted reference in the picking area.
- Pick by voice – Same as above but replacing lights and displays with voice.
- Visual picking with augmented reality – With this system, the operator uses augmented reality glasses combined with voice picking. In this way, the system guides the operator through voice and a system of virtual images superimposed on reality. For example: if a part is to be removed from drawer A and placed in customer XX’s order, the system indicates by voice to remove a part from drawer A while placing a virtual visual sign on the picking position from which the part is to be removed. The operator takes the piece and confirms by voice with an “OK” that he has taken it and the system indicates that the piece is to be removed. The operator takes the piece and confirms by voice with “OK” that he has taken it and the system tells him to deposit it in customer XX’s box while placing a virtual sign with the legend XX on the box in question. The operator confirms again by saying “OK” when the operation is finished and the system moves on to the next one.
Automation and robotics in the warehouse
There are basically two main concepts: industrial robots and cobots or collaborative robots. Both were introduced in the industry years ago in production lines, but today they are common in other areas of the company, such as logistics.
The substantive difference lies in the fact that while the industrial robot has been conceived, designed and programmed to work alone, normally with a single purpose that it performs to perfection, the cobot works at the service of the worker, collaborating with him, easily to reprogramme and, being able to perform several tasks, is more versatile.
- Stacker cranes and Pallet Shuttle systems
These are automated storage systems. The stacker crane can handle pallets or boxes and store them in its racks and the shuttle system works in compact racks bringing or placing the load that is requested or deposited in them.
- Conveyors and electrified conveyors
These are load transport systems, the former are anchored to the warehouse floor and the latter are not. Normally, conveyors are closely associated with stacker cranes, but, like electric monorails, they can be used without the presence of these to save trips with traditional equipment.
- Self-guided vehicles
They follow an autonomous path and are equipped with forks similar to those of forklift trucks.
- Intelligent systems that adapt to conventional warehouses
When we talk about automation, we are usually talking about replacing traditional processes with automated ones. This implies a radical change in the way of proceeding and in the structure of the warehouse. However, systems are emerging that, thanks to advanced sensors and artificial intelligence, are capable of adapting to the ever-changing conditions of warehouses with traditional structures, i.e. those designed for operators to move along aisles with conventional machinery. These new systems are so safe that they can work at the same time as humans sharing the same designed space. These include autonomous mobile robots, robots equipped with advanced software with 360° vision and high payload capacity, able to avoid obstacles and always trace the optimal route to their destination.
The future is already here and we have no choice but to adapt our warehouses to the new opportunities offered by technological advances. Profound changes in the consumer society, advances in technology and software and new ways of operating in companies set the trend.
In the market, many companies are developing their own technological solutions that are subject to constant, highly innovative changes that seem to have no end and that are occurring at breakneck speed. Trying to approach each and every one of these solutions, some of which are very futuristic, would give us enough material to write a whole book that would be obsolete as soon as it came out.