With fully autonomous warehouses unlikely in South Africa in the medium term, how can supply chains still benefit from such technologies?
Futurists have taken to predicting that in the next few years it is likely that warehousing will become a wholly automated function within supply chains. The much-referenced example is Amazon, which currently deploys more than 3 000 robots within their various warehouses, either in fully automated processes or in the facilitation of ‘goods-to-picker’ functions. The reality, however, is that within South Africa, as with the rest of the world, a long tradition of manual warehousing is firmly entrenched within the greater supply chain industry, driven amongst others by the relatively low cost of labour when compared to tech-heavy solutions.
Despite the relatively low uptake of autonomous warehousing locally, technologies such as self-guided forklifts, automated storage and retrieval systems, robotic palletisers, and vision-guided robots can dramatically increase the efficiencies within a warehouse. Furthermore, the notion of warehouses operating with limited human resources can significantly impact overhead costs, as labour can account for as much as 50% of the total cost associated with a facility.
Although a robotic warehouse can perform to higher KPI levels, it remains challenging to recreate human intuition and problem-solving abilities which for the moment, remain firmly within the realms of the human brain. For example, a machine programmed to recognise and discard damaged packaging as waste would react as instructed 100% of the time, while an employee could identify a simple repair and reuse solution instead. Another touted benefit of automation is that such solutions increase the available working hours within a facility since robots are not governed by the same laws as labour and that furthermore, automation eradicates the risk of labour stoppages or unrest. Whilst this is undoubtedly true, the risk of downtime due to technological malfunction usually goes unrecognised, or calculated in real financial terms.
The global pandemic has resulted in a tremendous increase in e-commerce, placing more responsibility on warehousing to reduce turnaround times to meet customer expectations. Many storages and logistics companies are turning to Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) to facilitate picking, deliveries, returns and stock takes. All of these functions need to take place at an extremely rapid rate to keep up with demand and a software solution such as a WMS can help keep errors and delays to a minimum.
Many companies are turning to high-density storage as a solution to the uncertainty within the supply chain due to Covid-19. High-density storage means some form of automation is required to stack, retrieve and also log the location of all goods. This can be done in different ways with a WMS usually employed to oversee the process.
In addition, many warehouse systems can be programmed for voice activation. This will be for very specific tasks, but it has been proven to speed up the picking process and also improve worker safety as staff can have their hands free when completing tasks.
An interesting aspect is the migration of skills. As automation increases, it doesn’t necessarily mean fewer jobs in the sector, but it does mean that skills must evolve. The ‘traditional’ warehouse picker of the past will likely become a WMS operator or machine operator or technician in the future. All businesses are different and digitisation will occur at different rates, but there will most certainly be an evolution of skills in this industry.
As business moves into a digitised future, it is a reality that more and more autonomous techniques will augment warehouse functions; however, the smartest approach is to correctly understand the core needs of the entire supply chain first, and only then select solutions that make sense. Arguably, the future is not purely digital – the future belongs to those with enough insight to select and implement growth enabling solutions that best fit their unique business needs – regardless of whether these are human or robotic.
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