A Decade into Industry 4.0, It’s Time for Logistics 4.0 and the Next-Generation Warehouse
This is my first blog post on Logistics 4.0 and warehouse robotics topics.
In this blog post, I would be explaining the evolution and technologies behind Logistics 4.0
Industry 4.0 has been with us for more than 10 years now. The idea is that we’re now in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution – one that is characterized by the automation, monitoring, and analysis of supply chains through smart technology.
By definition, a supply chain involves the movement of materials and goods – aka logistics. Thus, out of Industry 4.0 has grown the concept of Logistics 4.0 (also known as “Digital Logistics”) – the idea of applying modern digital technology and insights to logistics.
My own focus area is warehouse management, where logistics – moving goods into, out of, and around a football-field-sized building – is the name of the game. If you’re looking to move toward Logistics 4.0 for your own warehouse management processes – and you should be, simply to keep pace with the competition – here are some key thoughts on moving forward.
Start by understanding the trends
Like never before, logistics has become the stuff of front-page news. A cargo ship of enormous size gets stuck in the Suez Canal. Amazon is disrupting retail as we know it by shipping goods directly to the buyer. COVID-19 and the need for social distancing has led to greater use of robots throughout the supply chain.
The core trends behind all these stories involve the need for speed, efficiency, and better customer experiences. Organizations are all competing to deliver more in shorter time spans – all in a way that keeps customers satisfied with complete visibility from order to delivery. Warehouses that can anticipate demand, stock the right goods and materials, and deliver on time as promised are the organizations that will continue to survive and thrive.
Recognize where improvement is needed and where technology can help
For next-generation warehouses, manual processes are a thing of thing of the past. Wherever possible, efforts need to be taken to automate tasks, increase visibility, and enable collaboration and coordination.
That’s a lot to consider. It is useful to think in terms of three key operational pillars: people, processes, and technology.
- People: Even in an age of ubiquitous technology, people remain the core of everything that is done in the warehouse. Ideally, technology and people work together. The idea of “cobots” that work alongside humans in the warehouse is an example. Another is smart glasses that present information to people in the warehouse as they go about their duties. Wherever possible, look for opportunities to leverage the intelligence, creativity, and problem-solving abilities of your people – and let the technology do the rest.
- Processes: Not only do warehouse processes need to be automated, but they also need to be agile. Change is inevitable, and the warehouse that can adapt to that change will thrive. Because almost any process runs on data, one key to agility is the ability to connect to diverse data sets quickly – and then digest that data without timely transformations and processing. Another key is to understand that no warehouse is an island. Collaboration throughout the supply network is required to anticipate what’s coming in and what’s going out. Processes that support data consumption and collaboration are critical.
- Technology: The technology you use to support people and processes in the warehouse is critical. But beware of boiling the ocean. It is a good idea to implement new warehouse technology with a focus on quick wins that deliver measurable results. Some examples might include:
- IoT sensors to monitor warehouse equipment performance, define “geozones” within the warehouse and beyond, and track the location of goods in real time
- Smart glasses (as already mentioned) with augmented reality capabilities to support guided journeys throughout the workday with up-to-date information that keeps new and seasoned workers highly productive
- AMRs, or autonomous mobile robots, to speed the transport of goods throughout the warehouse, automate storage and retrieval tasks, and replace fixed conveyors for greater agility
- Integration of systems to facilitate data sharing across systems for manufacturing, ERP, warehouse management, and more
- Ubiquitous connectivity to power a warehouse communications network where sensors, controllers, and actuators take in mixed-stream data to automate processes and tasks
These are just a few of many possible technology plays to improve warehouse efficiency. But whichever you pursue, keep in mind the need for sustainability. Wherever possible, try to think of opportunities for reuse. Robots used in manufacturing, for instance, can be repurposed for the warehouse if needed. Or packaging materials can be designed to circle back to the warehouse for reuse with future shipments. These are not only sustainable practices, but also less costly.
As you pursue Logistics 4.0 transformation, keep in mind the importance of openness and flexibility for the systems you use to manage the technology you deploy. Take, for example, the solutions that are used to control warehouse robots. As more organizations adopt more robots, these solutions are beginning to proliferate.
A better approach is to rationalize the management of warehouse robots with a single secure solution that enables you to manage your entire fleet from end-to-end. With the ability to integrate with multiple robot vendors and instances across facilities, this approach puts you in a better position to go further with robotics – while reserving your people to act on the higher value activities that help you differentiate.
For whatever improvements you implement, it is important to track success. Otherwise, you’ll be unable to measure progress – which, after all, is the point of warehouse modernization. Initiate a dedicated reporting program to track and analyze key metrics with an eye toward continuous improvement. Different warehouses have different requirements, so tools to support reporting and tracking will vary. But the key is establishing clear metrics based on an agreed definition of success and enabling the visibility to collect relevant data. Based on what you learn, you can keep moving forward to improve efficiency and serve customers better.
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