Labour crunch puts warehouse automation front and centre

Sixty percent report issues maintaining their warehouse workforces, causing them to turn to technology and larger facilities in the search for productivity

With 60% of IT and operational decision-makers struggling to recruit and increase output from their warehouse workforces, the race is on to find solutions says the Warehousing Vision Study.

The study, which covered transportation and logistics, retail, post and parcel delivery and wholesale distribution industries across six countries, found that the primary method envisioned to tackle the issues inherent in operating warehouses is the adoption of technology, and particularly automation, that can augment the workforce.  

In the results, 77% of respondents agreed that augmenting workers with technology is going to be a critical pillar to improving efficiencies and 80% felt that technology will be critical in maintaining competitiveness.

A lack of understanding

However, the challenges of increasing the technology footprint in the warehouse could be severe according to the polling.

The report found that 77% of respondents also said that “they are slow to implement new devices and technology,” even though they are aware of the need to modernise.

The primary issue is one of understanding the issues and the tools needed. Sixty-one percent said that the putting systems into operation was their biggest operational challenge, while a mere 35% of respondents said that they have a clear vision of where to automate.

Distribution centres set to get larger

The challenge of improving workforce productivity is only set to increase as facilities grow in size and the number of items that companies aim to ship through them also rises.  

Within the next five years, 87% of decision-makers said that they expect their warehouses to get larger.

Additionally, 86% said that they expect throughput volumes to grow, 83% predict carrying more Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) and 82% forecast operating more warehouses across the same time period.

Solutions needed for a workforce gap

These expectations will only serve to exacerbate an already problematic labour picture within distribution centres.

Sixty percent of respondents said that recruitments was a challenge and the same amount again found productivity to be an issue.

While the industry had largely been able to source labour readily in the decade following the 2008 recession, the picture has shifted in most major economies and now it is proving difficult to hire and retain warehouse workers.

With an average four-and-a-half-week period for workers to reach full productivity for inbound and outbound operations, the industry now needs to look more closely at productivity-enhancing technologies to support workers and training to smoothly incorporate these innovations.

Despite this, only a little over half (54%) say that they are increasing supply chain and technical training in response to the above challenges.

Visibility front and centre

At the heart of productivity improvement measures is enhancing the visibility of stock moving through facilities.

Respondents rate increasing asset visibility and utilisation as their most important outcome to be achieved by 2024.

This is pushing investment into Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) and mobile execution systems that interface with workers in the warehouse according to the research.

There is rapidly growing interest in rugged tablets, wearable computers and mobile barcode and thermal printers.

This is critically needed as the report found that less than one-third barcode the majority of their inbound carton and item level stock, highlighting the visibility gap.

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