With ever-increasing demand for faster delivery, the ongoing global supply chain disruption and rapid adoption of automation technologies, Honeywell (Nasdaq: HON) has highlighted fast-emerging trends that are having significant and increasing impact on the warehouse and automation industry.
“Warehouse and distribution center operators are aggressively seeking ways to digitalize operations by adding automation technology and integrating those solutions with software systems,” said Roman Poludnev, General Manager of Safety and Productivity Solutions Middle East, Turkey and Africa. “The goal is to increase efficiency and create safer, more productive workplaces. As a result, we’re seeing some developing trends in the second half of the year that are going to significantly shape the way the warehousing and logistics sectors operate.”
The key trends that Honeywell believes will have substantial influence on warehouse and distribution center (DC) operations include:
Increasingly aggressive adoption of proven automation technologies
Moving into the second half of 2022, there is heightened interest in long-proven warehouse automation systems that pick, pack, sort and carry packages throughout the facility. There is also increasing research by end users into how to integrate this automation into warehouse software systems, such as warehouse management and warehouse control systems (WCS), to extract more value from automation.
Regardless of where companies currently sit on the automation spectrum, SKU proliferation, widely varying order profiles and seasonal demands are making some degree of automation a necessity. For many operations, order picking or putting are the entry point to digitalization and automation. For those further down the path, integrating these technologies into operations means trained coordination between workers, automated systems and software to drive high-speed, high-volume warehouse execution.
Newer forms of automation are being evaluated and adopted with increased urgency
There are also signals that newer forms of automation, such as robotic palletizing/depalletizing and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs), are beginning a path toward significant adoption. AMRs provide significant productivity benefits by, for example, automating the movement of carts used to transport picked orders or returns. Instead of spending more than half the day walking, workers can park carts in pickup locations and call robots to retrieve them. Additionally, robotic palletizers and depalletizers limit the need for heavy and/or awkward lifting by humans.
The use of digital twins will accelerate to help automated warehouse planning
Digital twins deliver virtual representations of a physical environment – proving extremely helpful in the warehouse industry. With a digital twin, new automation technology can be tested virtually, without downtime or rearrangement of physical assets. Automation efforts can be tested, and impact can be reviewed. By using digital twins and synthetic data modeling, warehouse operators can close the loop between planning, training and implementation on the floor. With this technology, what used to equate to months of automation implementation can now be accomplished in days. In short, warehouse performance can be improved far more quickly and cost-effectively than in the past.
Accelerated dark warehouse research & development, forward-looking companies begin path
Dark warehouses promise to be nearly fully automated and autonomous, operating virtually free from human intervention – aside from planning, maintenance and ongoing optimization. They will operate 24/7/365 in no light (thus, the term dark warehouse) and in extremely cold or warm conditions, saving energy and related costs. They promise to help solve the labor shortage and drive incredible efficiency. However, full concepts are still at least two years away and live implementations are at least three years away. While breakthrough technologies in robotics, sensing and control, and IT are still needed, demand is now driving more aggressive R&D investment to achieve these breakthroughs faster.
Meanwhile, forward-looking warehouse operators are starting the journey to dark warehouse by not only putting automation piece parts in place as described above, but also tying technologies together via software, such as Warehouse Execution Systems, allowing all the technologies to communicate.
Operators will need to plan for that as well as determine what types of warehouses and industries are most appropriate for the early days of dark warehouses.
“These trends showcase a collective theme: automation is increasingly paving the way for better safety, productivity and workforce retention in the warehouse industry,” said Poludnev. “From what we see, the number of operators currently using automation technology and aggressively moving to expand it looks to be growing rapidly heading into the second half of 2022. These are smart investments to help ensure efficiency in operations and minimize the need for future capital expenditures.”