When peak season kicks into gear, all hell breaks loose in the warehouse. No matter how organized and efficient you think you are, real-world events prove otherwise. The good news is that automated inventory management systems can significantly reduce the potential for failures, bottlenecks, and similar delays. They can also help keep up with client and customer demands, and the expectations those bring.
The truth is that any supply chain player, from the beginning of the chain to the end, needs to have streamlined processes to keep up with everything that’s happening. Often, delays or failures happen outside of the current organization, brought on by vendor or partner actions, shortages, transportation problems, and more. So, with the right warehouse management tools, inventory control and accuracy are vastly improved, regardless of what’s happening elsewhere.
Here are just some of the challenges that automation inventory management and efficient warehouse solutions can solve.
1. Optimized Layouts
An optimized warehouse layout is at the core of a productive, effective, and safe environment, not just for workers, but for everyone involved (clients too). It’s not just about utilizing the space properly, but also the effect it has on regular operations from receiving to forward picking. A poor layout can slow down some of these facets of inventory management, especially when goods or supplies are placed haphazardly and nothing has been planned out.
But as for its effect on automated inventory management, the implications are vast. Even with an automated solution in place, poor layouts can degrade many of the benefits you’d see from such a system. If goods aren’t being fed quickly through a picking or receiving line, for example, then the rest of the operation is slowed as a result—and the automated hardware can’t do its job correctly.
A logical sequence must be planned for items, from the time they enter the warehouse to the time they leave, and everything between those points must be streamlined. Consider receiving, classification, forward picking or quick picking, returns, and even shipments. Where are these task sites located, how much space do they need to thrive, and is there a clear path for the related hardware and automated machinery?
2. Smart Tagging
Automated inventory management systems work hand-in-hand with data platforms, helping to log information particularly as goods pass through the local network. To do this, however, all goods need to be labeled using smart barcode technologies, whether it’s a simple scannable barcode or radio frequency identification (RFID) tags to track the inventory in real-time. These systems also help to eliminate the need for manual data entry, which affords yet another speed improvement to the operation.
In packing or elsewhere, intelligent tagging systems can provide crucial information to teams. For example, if someone is asked to pick an item for a customer order, only to find out later that it weighs over 200 pounds and they can’t possibly lift it on their own, it’s going to slow down their progress. Having that information logged, and available for anyone who needs it, is definitely part of the smart tagging system. A lack of stock keeping unit (SKU) weight and dimensional information in the system is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a big issue for 23% of warehouses and distribution centers.
Barcodes and tags can be used to organize, receive, pick, pack, and even deal with returns and damaged items. But ultimately it paves the way for some of the other, more advanced automation systems to make a mark—such as collaborative robots, automated picking hardware, packaging systems, and beyond. The upfront investments and implementation requirements can seem overwhelming, but once everything is in place there’s remarkably little to address besides standard maintenance and monitoring. Of course, a major challenge here is the synchronization or coordination with suppliers and vendors. All goods need to be labeled appropriately, and that may require a strong relationship with other supply chain players.
3. Collaborative Robots
Often referred to as cobots, collaborative robots are essentially automated machines that help with a variety of manual labor tasks, and sometimes even digital underpinnings like logging in or out of inventory. The prime example of cobots is Amazon’s warehouse army, which has been engaged alongside workers for over 10 years now. In Amazon’s warehouses, they pick and pack goods, move and organize shelves, and lift heavy pallets or goods.
Yet, while physical robots certainly help optimize the warehouse floor and inventory management processes, there are software bots that can shoulder a lot of the behind-the-scenes and digital aspects of the job. From customer service tools to purchasing and budget operations, software assistants cut down on much of the hands-on labor required for electronic elements. Empowered by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning technologies, they can even help do things like organizing the warehouse and inventory placement (the number one tip in this guide!), track goods as they move throughout the facility, and address other supply chain hurdles, like finding alternative supplies when there’s a shortage or ramping up procurement when customer demand spikes.
4. Streamlined Picking and Packing
Every strategy mentioned up until this point has a direct contribution to the speed and performance of picking and packing operations. For instance, an unoptimized warehouse with a poor layout is going to cause delays and longer lead times for inventory picking. That, of course, will extend to customer experiences, possibly even making their orders take longer.
The next step, however, is implementing automated inventory management tools and procedures to streamline picking and packing departments. Collaborative robots can help here, making it faster and easier for workers to find the items they need, and move them to the next stage, whether that’s packing and shipment, returns, or somewhere else. Something of a golden child in this category, Amazon does this extremely well in its distribution centers and warehouses.
A warehouse execution system (WES) is another automation tool that can assist with managing, optimizing, and scheduling tasks within facilities. Typically, they combine two major management solutions—the warehouse control system (WCS) and the warehouse management system (WMS). These platforms can be used to manage and distribute duties to the appropriate workers, but also to automate time-consuming tasks that in more traditional environments would slow the operation to a crawl. For example, identifying quickly what needs to be handled by cobots or a machine versus a manual laborer.
The ultimate goal is to cut down on walking, locating, and transporting tasks that manual laborers have to do—essentially removing a lot of human error from the equation. Automation systems can also ensure quality controls are met and provide an accurate and consistent audit trail, especially when combined with smart tagging technologies to track shipments. They also provide the opportunity to deliver just-in-time service or on-demand service that’s faster than ever before. Shipment times are usually reduced, with order fulfillment met at unprecedented speeds.
5. Faster Returns
Peak season also sees the rise of another challenge, more returns, thanks to an increase in order volume. In an ideal world, quality control is perfect, and returns never happen, but we’re not in that kind of reality.
Automated inventory management helps speed along these interactions, and better classify incoming goods whether they’re truly damaged, have yet to be evaluated or graded, or they’re good for restocking. There’s also the physical organization of these items, which involves placing them somewhere in a warehouse that’s accessible but not in the way—optimized layouts play a huge role here, too!
Preparing for Peak Season
Overall, one of the best ways to prepare a warehouse for peak season and the many challenges it brings is to have a comprehensive and automated inventory management system in place. It can help secure more optimized layouts for the facility, maintain those layouts, intelligently tag inventory and track it, build collaborative and highly automated processes (namely with cobots), and streamline picking, packing, and returns. The result is an incredibly efficient, safer, and more successful operation that’s capable of meeting both fluctuating customer demands and unforeseen market events without bumps in the road.