Thomas Jorgensen, President & CEO, Green Worldwide Shipping® International Logistics Experts.
When you think of a “smart warehouse,” you might picture a fully automated facility staffed by robots efficiently receiving, moving, storing and shipping packages to eager consumers throughout the country. The reality is that while automation is a critical support component for optimizing warehousing operations, true intelligence goes far beyond robotics—it’s about creating warehousing and supply chain resilience. Smart warehousing has everything to do with a comprehensive and product- or industry-specific approach that combines the strengths of cutting-edge automation, high-quality processes, respect for the value of employees and a deep understanding of international logistics and global supply chain dynamics.
High-Quality Processes: Warehousing Beyond Automation
Smart warehousing begins with high-quality processes; however, not all processes can or should be standardized and rarely is there a one-size-fits-all solution. It’s about making strategic investments and configuring operations to meet the demands of the product and customer.
Warehousing efficiency and optimization require attention to detail. Businesses that are invested in understanding the intricacies of their warehouse operations should make the effort to conduct time studies and embrace lean management principles (such as just-in-time (JIT) inventory and continuous improvement) to build efficiencies, reduce waste and enhance productivity.
Companies have long expanded into multichannel fulfillment to serve both B2B and B2C markets. Using mixed inventory process management, understanding the complexities of returns and simplifying warehouse flows are just some of the ways to streamline operations and reduce the cost of sitting inventory before automation comes into play.
That said, I find the collection and effective use of data through warehouse management systems (WMSs) is the backbone of intelligent warehousing and the most effective way to empower employees to make informed decisions and quickly adapt to changing market conditions. WMS automation is a widely adopted tool used in warehousing management and is a requirement for supporting multichannel distribution in the digital age. Companies need to know how much product is sitting and moving in and out of their inventories in real time.
Empowering The Warehousing Workforce: Great People Make Great Brands
Warehousing is a complex and skilled profession that requires human intuition and problem-solving; it should not be reduced to a series of automated actions. Even the most automated warehouses require human engagement, custom programming, increased data storage and on-going process maintenance. Robotic automations are not easily reconfigured to support lower-volume test markets or unique process flows and often require significant investment before seeing operational gains. Flexibility and resilience are key.
In the race toward automation, we must remember there are always people powering these new technologies. Smart warehousing means providing warehousing staff with the training, equipment and environment that encourage them to take ownership in the process, feel valued for their expertise and understand the important role they play in the company’s success.
Inventory Placement: Navigating Global Challenges
Optimizing inventory placement geographically is another important facet of intelligent warehousing. It’s not only about the efficient movement of goods inside the warehouse, but about moving goods through U.S. trade gateways that provide a strategic cost advantage and/or position product in proximity to end users.
Restricted movement through the Panama Canal, extreme weather, labor strikes—these are just some of the events that have impacted the flow of cargo this year. Global events, such as wars, political tensions and regulatory changes can disrupt the delicate balance of international trade. Robotics and fully automated facilities are not responsive enough in their operations to support customers changing processes without adding significant costs.
In this type of uncertain geopolitical environment, intelligent warehousing means being adaptable and having strong partnerships to ensure uninterrupted inventory supply.
Using Warehouse Management Systems: Best Practices
When it comes to WMS best practices, businesses should be focused on creating a successful environment for integration and implementation. For B2C, it’s about the existing capabilities of a WMS to connect to an extensive suite of online retailers quickly and effectively. B2B inventories are also looking for speed to integration, however mostly back into their own enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. In either case, businesses should have internal technology team or a third-party partner to actively support the WMS integration.
Companies also need visibility over inventory activity that warehouse management systems provide but should take extra care to communicate the level of visibility that is required. Item definition mapping is a very important step during implementation that controls not only the flow of data, but also dictates operations processes. Improper WMS set up can often lead to a complete systems overhaul, which is both costly and time-consuming.
Business leaders and supply chain executives should understand that, at the end of the day, it’s all about building strong, sustainable relationships with vendors, customers and employees alike. For logistics partners, this means visiting the warehouses to understand the technologies and automations that have been put in place. Proactively communicating and involving partners in discussions around upcoming goals, changes in forecast, or expectations to foster longevity and trust between teams and within the network.
The idea of “smart warehousing” goes far beyond robotics and automation. It is a holistic approach that brings together high-quality processes, skilled and empowered employees, technology and a thorough understanding of supply chain management. In the pursuit of efficiency, we cannot lose sight of the human touch needed to build resilient warehousing capable of withstanding the changes of an evolving world.
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