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How Technology Has Helped Warehouses Pivot During The Pandemic

While many companies have faced challenges during the pandemic, others have found opportunities for growth. For example, in-store shopping restrictions have accelerated demand for e-commerce fulfillment, even among traditional brick-and-mortar retailers. According to the Australia Post, online sales in 2020[1] were up 40% from 2019, with Black Friday weekend sales alone rising 42% year over year. This means warehouse operators have experienced the equivalent of the Christmas rush nearly every day for a year now and heightened levels of demand during seasonal peak periods. As a result, many have had to shift their focus from maximising sales to simply meeting delivery deadlines.

Though a number of approaches are being taken to increase operational capacity, warehouse operators are hoping that increased hiring will provide fast relief. However, you can’t instantly improve throughput and workflows by simply adding more people.

The Correlation Between Technology Input and Human Output

Sixty percent of warehouse operators who participated in Zebra’s 2024 Warehouse Vision Study reported recruitment and/or labor efficiency and productivity among their top challenges. They also said it takes four and a half weeks, on average, for new staff members to reach full productivity – and this was before COVID-19 social distancing protocols challenged in-person training.

One of the reasons onboarding new employees takes so long is because old technology is still being used within many warehouses. Young workers who have grown up using advanced technology might feel as though they have stepped back in time by two decades when being taught how to navigate the complex menus and processes of terminal emulation systems on old-fashioned green screens. They may even find it cumbersome and tiring. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Warehouse technology solutions have developed rapidly since the first warehouse management system (WMS) applications were introduced. Most are now delivered or supported by enterprise-grade mobile computing devices that feature modern touch interfaces, advanced wireless connectivity and multiple data input options. They also bring together augmented reality (AR), wearables, voice commands and more to support a number of workflows, including those who are co-dependent on radio frequency identification (RFID), barcoding, sensor and automation solutions. Perhaps most noteworthy is that they can overlay processes with an existing older WMS, bringing modern-day comforts and efficiencies without requiring warehouse operators to replace entire operational systems and processes. This helps to improve workers’ productivity, reduce errors and save time on nearly every task.

It also helps to slash training time. An increasing number of warehouse mobility solutions run on the Android™ operating system, which is well known to many people due to its prolific use in the consumer smartphone and tablet market. Even though enterprise-grade Android solutions are specifically designed for professional use cases, they still boast the same familiar touch-screen interfaces that employees use every day on their personal devices. As a result, new workers often master WMS applications in the same amount of time it takes them to learn a new consumer app. This helps to accelerate time to productivity, which subsequently contributes to higher job satisfaction and retention.

Warehouses are Maturing Quickly, but Their Technology Transformations are Just Beginning

The pandemic has dramatically accelerated digital transformation across every sector, and we expect this movement to continue as warehouse operators and logistics enterprises prepare for a prolonged pandemic. However, there is no single approach to warehouse modernisation and no “perfect” technology solution for all. Each organisation’s unique challenges and objectives will dictate investment decisions and implementation timing.

For example, all warehouses will likely progress through the five phases outlined in Zebra’s Warehouse Maturity Model, but not necessarily in chronological order, simultaneously across all facilities, or at the same pace as competitors. Some may begin in Phase 1 by introducing scanning solutions that can record “goods in” and “goods out.” However, some may jump to Phase 3 and start incorporating sensors and RFID tags to automate the scanning process. Others might find it beneficial to prioritize Phase 5, which is when intelligent automation and data analytics solutions are integrated to help augment human labor, prescribe more targeted actions to workers and adapt workflow execution to daily demand and performance fluctuations.

No matter which phase warehouse operators have reached in their digital transformation journeys, time is of the essence when it comes to making their best next move. Small and large businesses alike must be able to keep pace with growing customer demand and competitors. Fortunately, the many different technologies needed to reach full maturity and scale already exist. Therefore, it’s important to (briefly) stop and assess which ones will prove most impactful right now and start implementing the foundational elements – such as mobile computers and scanners – that will allow for incremental, sustainable improvements.

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