The game is changing and expectations are rising. Can you keep up? Distribution centers and fulfilment businesses are at the center of an e-commerce universe that’s barreling down a fast track into the future. Relentless demand for service at lightning speed is forcing operations to expand or face extinction. You can’t afford to be seen as the weak link in the supply chain and technology is the only way to show strength. Here’s why.
Grow Big or Go Home.
Go back even a few years and you see a very different world inside fulfillment and distribution facilities. Work was slow, steady and revolved around bigger chunks of inventory. Pallets were primary platforms for workers shifting bulk orders around on forklifts, loading them onto trucks according to schedules set far in advance. It wasn’t quite like clockwork but it was close. Shipments were mainly sent to stores, routinely and predictably, with only minor fluctuations tied to special promotions or seasonal changes.
Enter 2020. The pace of the e-commerce age is starting to snowball and then a pandemic pushes it into overdrive as millions of consumers suddenly retreat from browsing bricks and mortar to shopping for everything online. The supporting supply chain tightens up its slack overnight and soon begins pushing its limits with seams stretching to accommodate a swelling, fast-flowing pipeline that defines what Jim Tompkins, Chairman of Tompkins International calls “the next normal.”
Pallets are still part of the picture, but the movement of inventory is much more granular now. Fingers are becoming as important as forklifts, as workers distill cases and bulk containers into individual product ‘eaches’ retrieved like needles in haystacks that are quickly packaged and shipped directly to consumers. Everything is dramatically more complicated. There’s more risk for error but less room for it as accuracy becomes just as important as speed in a quest for maximum efficiency.
The new bottom line for fulfillment and distribution enterprises is the ability to move more products faster without mistakes. One or two day shipping is the bar and orders are coming from a variety of new directions. Growth used to be a choice but is now a survival skill and managers are racing to scale up to stay a step ahead of the surge.
The same old ways just won’t work anymore. Everything is on the table in the push to cut waste, build efficiencies and produce increasingly bigger and faster processes. Fulfilment centers are analyzing every aspect of how they do business to turn weaknesses into strengths. Everything is being tightened up from the way staff are scheduled and inventory is organized to the timing of trucks arriving at docks. Full optimization is now a competitive requirement and the ability to anticipate what’s coming down the pike is the superpower everyone seeks.
The Revolution’s Realities.
Growth in e-commerce’s new normal can’t be gradual. The evolution of fulfillment operations is looking more like a revolution and the only way to get their fast is through technology. You can only push your people so hard before you realize that’s not the way to make the level-leap you need to compete. Humans are still extremely important in the overall equation, but the reality is they cost a lot of money and make mistakes. There are also serious limits on how fast they can work.
Only technology can help workers work better and make the most of their contribution in a growing fulfillment operation. Clipboards, scratch pads and carbon copies are fading into the background while software steps up to remap processes and eliminate wasteful redundancies. Software can now organize inventory better throughout a facility to prevent needless repetitive actions, such as workers wasting time retracing their steps up and down long aisles as they fish out products for shipment.
Distribution and fulfillment centers are a long way from full automation and the demand for workers will continue to grow along with the e-commerce surge. As you expand your team, technology will help you recruit the best employees. Workers will prefer operations that offer better tools to make their jobs easier and boost their productivity.
Fulfillment is also juggling more customers than ever before and technology is the only way to keep all the balls in the air. Routine shipments to stores are only part of the picture now as fulfilment becomes focused directly on the end consumer. Omnichannel pressures are materializing, putting fulfillment businesses in the critical role of ensuring seamless e-commerce shopping experiences for all kinds of shoppers. The shift is profound and requires complex Warehouse Management System (WMS) software to make all of the right connections and communications inside and outside of a fulfillment facility.
The flexibility that comes along with expansion may be the biggest benefit of aggressive technology adoption. Smarter tech allows your operation to be ready for what’s next and gives you the ability to re-calibrate resources and processes to meet changing needs and sudden fluctuations in demands. It positions you to exploit new opportunities as they arise. Rather than struggling to catch up or just stay afloat, technology lets you grow your business in a way that keeps you off your heels and leaning forward.
Where Tech Meets Task.
While software is becoming the backbone of fulfillment centers, it’s only as good as the data fed into it. Your WMS depends on accurate and timely information inputs to keep your entire operation running fast and efficiently. The people and machines engaging your inventory are the main source of that information. Optimizing their productivity is key in achieving the kind of efficiency your operation needs to be competitive.
Wearable technology is becoming standard because it frees up human hands to do more important tasks. Complex identification and processing data from labels on products, packages, and shelves easily flow through scanners on wrists and fingers into a WMS, and the evolution of smart glasses and other personal platforms are not far behind. Radio-frequency identification (RFID) goes even further by replacing more of the human factor with more automation. While RFID has some restrictions and limitations that narrow its potential in a distribution center setting, it can make a big difference where it fits.
Access control and surveillance systems are no longer just for security. If you haven’t considered what these technologies can do to boost your business operations, take a closer look. Cameras and door locks are now tied to software that empowers them to monitor and analyze the flow of people and materials throughout a warehouse. Access control systems can create activity heat maps and reveal hidden possibilities for tightening up processes and taking advantage of off-peak opportunities. These systems can even be used for compliance purposes, confirming that actions have taken place, such as the transfer of products onto a truck.
In a world of real-time results, modern two-way radios also boost productivity. They make dealing with surprises and emergencies on the warehouse floor only a button-push away. Radios allow workers to work closely together even at a distance, and solve-problems immediately to keep things moving. Urgent answers are received right away without interruption in situations that otherwise burn precious time. Unlike cell phones, two-way radios also allow for dedicated channels to streamline conversations and limit unrelated chatter. And when it comes to reliability and durability, you just can’t beat them.
Growth Without Regret.
What’s holding you back? Is your distribution operation slow to adopt smart technologies because of the cost? Well consider what sticking with old methods is costing you. Not budging from the old ways may take you out of the game completely as competitors race ahead with smarter digital strategies. The truth is most new technologies easily pay for themselves by cutting waste, boosting performance, and keeping your operation moving at the speed of e-commerce.
Are you worried about the hassle of implementation? Honestly, it may not be easy, but the longer you wait, the harder it gets. With the age of e-commerce now exploding, don’t expect a ‘good time’ to upgrade or adopt new tech in the future. Demand will not subside so it’s best to bite the bullet and get on track now.
No one regrets allowing technology to play a leading role in the growth of their distribution center. In fact, the impact can be exciting. You’ll find opportunities you didn’t know existed and you’ll turn your operation into a productivity powerhouse that fills your team with pride. Growing your business to compete in the e-commerce supply chain bonanza is essential and technology will show you how to do more than you ever thought possible before.