Invar: smart warehousing trends for 2021 and beyond
2020 was a year like no other. So what are the implications for warehousing and fulfilment in 2021? Here are five key trends.
1. The ecommerce dilemma and micro-fulfilment centres
Ecommerce has boomed during the pandemic, but what will happen when restrictions are lifted? Will shoppers return to the high street in the same numbers? Retail’s dilemma over where to invest, or how to best serve the customer whilst leveraging advantage from real estate commitments, is likely to result in the rise of micro-fulfilment centres. These will be small, highly automated facilities placed within urban areas, close to the customer, and may well be located within existing retail stores. Low-cost, scalable automation will allow the retailer to be far more responsive to customer demand, facilitating rapid 2-3hr home delivery or pick-up.
Similarly, micro-automated facilities for consolidating parcel deliveries are being planned by carriers or municipal authorities to rationalise ‘last mile’ deliveries in urban areas. These local consolidation hubs will require close collaboration between stakeholders, but would enable customers to pick-up a number of parcels ordered from different retailers using a pin-code at an ‘ATM’ style service point. Rising environmental concerns over clean air and congestion will drive a radical transformation of urban logistics.
Micro-fulfilment technology is set to accelerate in 2021 as it can be easily replicated and deployed as a network solution.
2. Agility, resilience and space
After the shocks of 2020, large retailers and manufactures will be looking to build greater resilience into their supply chains by sourcing from a broader base of suppliers, many of which may be much smaller, more local businesses. These suppliers will need to adopt systems and agile processes that allow them to perform to the exacting standards demanded by large retail clients. For many, this will mean upgrading warehouse management systems and creating agility through the use of flexible and scalable automation.
Creating resilience inevitably also means holding more stock, which translates into needing more warehousing. Pressure on available warehouse space due to Covid-19, Brexit and the inexorable rise of ecommerce will be a major issue for businesses in 2021 and beyond. A 2020 report published in the autumn by estate agents, Knight Frank, predicts that a rise of online retail sales will drive demand for 92 million sq ft of UK warehouse space by 2024. Getting the maximum use of the cube will be an imperative; so careful warehouse planning and the intelligent use of automation could provide a cost-effective solution to finding more space in an existing facility.
Businesses will need to design automation cleverly for peak, allowing for scalability, and invest in low-CapEx projects that create value immediately – as opposed to focusing on large-scale projects that deliver over a protracted period.
3. Digital transformation
A business’ competitiveness depends on its access to, and analysis of, critical data. And smart business will be developing smart warehouses where robots, pickers, packaging machines and sorters are seamlessly integrated to produce, not only optimum performance, but valuable data that is shared in real-time with wider systems in order to deliver competitive advantage.
Warehouses and fulfilment centres will become more integrated, more intelligent and more connected. Digital transformation of the warehouse will continue apace in 2021.
On the controls side, field-mounted devices are advancing rapidly, facilitating plug ‘n’ play options for rapid installation, the flexible expansion of systems or the fast replacement of components. Preventative maintenance is also taking a step forward with predictive analytics, facilitated by Profinet (Process Field Net) and BPN connections to end devices for fast collection of data and remote support.
4. Brexit reality
Brexit has become a reality. Complexity over paperwork for consignments destined for Europe has already caused many businesses considerable distress, with vehicles held up at customs points due to incomplete manifests and missing data. As a matter of urgency many organisations will need to upgrade their systems to cope, aligning warehouse management systems with new customs requirements.
The risk of delays at ports has also increased the likelihood that European businesses will hold more stock in the UK, placing higher levels of demand on UK warehousing space. Similarly, UK companies are expected to create inventory holdings on the other side of the Channel. Such moves will demand greater visibility of inventory across multiple locations, requiring intelligent warehouse management software capable of providing the complete picture.
As felt by many businesses already, Brexit has stemmed the flow of low-cost labour from Europe, impacting traditional labour-intensive warehouse activities such as order picking. Combine this with the rise of the National Living Wage to £8.72 for employees over 25 years of age and the expectation of continuing social distancing requirements extending into the foreseeable future, and there can be little surprise that businesses will be looking to introduce higher levels of automation into their warehouse processes.
Both retailers and manufacturers will be seeking operational resilience through agile automation. By adopting intelligent software and new advanced technologies, such as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), many businesses, particularly SMEs, will move to leverage the flexibility, speed and performance of goods-to-person automation in their warehouse operations.
5. The year of the robot
This will be the year of the robot. The last 12 months has opened the eyes of omni-channel retailers to the vulnerability of highly manual processes. Their almost complete reliance on online sales during the pandemic has emphasised the critical necessity for reliable fulfilment and the efficient picking and packing of single and small multiples of order items.
Autonomous mobile robots offer the flexibility, speed and performance needed for efficient goods-to-person automation. Importantly, they offer scalability too, which is critical to allowing businesses to roll out the technology as the demands of the business dictate. AMR systems combined with pick-to-light technology can boost order picking performance from under 100 units per hour using traditional methods, to up to 600 picks per hour, with an ROI that can be as little as 12 months.
Fluent.ai x BSH: Voice Automating the Assembly Line
Fluent.ai has deployed its voice recognition solutions in one of BSH’s German factories. BSH leads the market in producing connected appliances—its brands include Bosch, Siemens, Gaggenau, NEFF, and Thermador, and with this new partnership, the company intends to cut transition time in its assembly lines.
According to BSH, voice automation will yield 75-100% efficiency gains—but it’s the collaboration between the two companies that stands out. ‘After considering 11 companies for this partnership, we chose Fluent.ai because of their key competitive differentiators’, explained Ion Hauer, Venture Partner at BSH Startup Kitchen.
What Sets Fluent.ai Apart?
After seven years of research, the company developed a wide range of artificial intelligence (AI) software products to help original equipment manufacturers (OEM) expand their services. Three key aspects stood out to BSH, which operates across the world and in unique factory environments.
- Robust noise controls. The system can operate even in loud conditions.
- Low latency. The AI understands commands quickly and accurately.
- Multilingual support. BSH can expand the automation to any of its 50+ country operations.
How Voice Automation Works
Instead of pressing buttons, BSH factory workers will now be able to speak into a headset fitted with Fluent.ai’s voice recognition technology. After uttering a WakeWord, workers can use a command to start assembly line movement. As the technology is hands-free, workers benefit from less physical strain, which will both reduce employee fatigue and boost line production.
‘Implementing Fluent’s technology has already improved efficiencies within our factory, with initial implementation of the solution cutting down the transition time from four seconds to one and a half”, said Markus Maier, Project Lead at the BSH factory. ‘In the long run, the production time savings will be invaluable’.
Future Global Adoption
In the coming years, BSH and Fluent.ai will continue to push for artificial intelligence on factory lines, pursuing efficiency, ergonomics, and a healthy work environment. ‘We started with Fluent.ai on one factory assembly line, moved to three, and [are now] considering rolling the technology out worldwide’, said Maier.
Said Probal Lala, Fluent.ai’s CEO: ‘We are thrilled to be working with BSH, a company at the forefront of innovation. Seeing your solution out in the real world is incredibly rewarding, and we look forward to continuing and growing our collaboration’.