Study sheds light on how automation will affect warehouse ops

Automation is coming to the warehouse, but may not work the way some experts have predicted.

Eighty-seven percent of respondents in a new study by Zebra Technologies are currently in the process of expanding, or planning to expand, the size of their warehouses by 2024, with 82% anticipating an increase in the number of warehouses during this timeframe.

One of the biggest findings of Zebra’s “2024 Warehousing Vision Study” is that 77% of respondents agree that augmenting workers with technology is the best way to introduce automation in the warehouse. However, only 35% have a clear understanding of where to start automating.

Sixty-one percent of respondents plan to enable partial automation or labor augmentation with technology in the warehouse. Three-quarters of respondents believe human interaction is part of their optimal operational balance, with 39% citing partial automation (some human involvement) and 34% citing augmentation (equipping workers with devices) as their preference.

Respondents anticipate using robotics/bots for inbound inventory management (24%), outbound packing (22%), and goods in/receiving (20%) by 2024.

Other interesting results include:

• 59% of respondents cited capacity utilization as a significant expected challenge and plan to address it by expanding the size of their warehouses.

• 60% of respondents cited labor recruitment and/or labor efficiency and productivity among their top challenges, with 63% noting an immediate focus on individual or team productivity outcomes.

• IT/technology utilization was identified both as the most anticipated operational challenge (61%) of the next five years and a desired long-term outcome for increased asset visibility, real-time guidance and data-driven performance.

• As warehouses expand, so will the volume of stock keeping units (SKUs) and the speed items need to be shipped. Decision-makers will seek increased visibility and productivity by implementing more robust returns management operations (81%), task interleaving (80%), value-added services (80%) and third-party logistics (83%).

• Almost half (46%) of respondents cited faster delivery to end-customers as the primary factor driving their warehouse growth plans.

• More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents agree that they need to modernize operations across the warehouse to remain competitive in the on-demand economy but are slow to implement new mobile devices and technology.

• 73% of companies are currently modernizing their warehouses by implementing or refreshing mobile computers, tablets and barcode scanners.

• By 2024, modernization will be driven by Android-based mobile computing solutions (83%), real-time location systems (RTLS) (55%) and full-featured warehouse management systems (WMS) (54%).

• 60% of respondents cited mobile barcode label or thermal printers as a key area of investment as part of their plans to add, expand or upgrade devices in the next three years.

Among North American respondents, 49% identified outbound packing, staging and loading as a challenge. Ninety-four percent will have implemented or plan to implement trailer load optimization and/or load compliance solutions by 2024.

The Zebra study surveyed 1,403 IT and operational decision makers in the manufacturing, transportation & logistics, retail, post and parcel delivery, and wholesale distribution industries in North America, Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Latin America.
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