Warehouse of the Future: Speed, Innovation and Proactivity


Raghav Sibal, Managing Director, ANZ at Manhattan Associates explains the essential tools and strategies to future-proof warehouses as we emerge from the challenges of the pandemic.

After the pandemic hit, many companies were simply not prepared for the increase in online orders experienced during the aftermath. Pandemic aside, the challenges presented to brands over the past 12 months have raised a number of questions around longer-term strategies, including questions as to what the warehouse of the future might look like, and how it might manage inevitable supply chain distributions in the future.

In order to build a resilient warehouse equipped for the future, there are four key areas of focus that warehouses of the future will need to consider: fast fulfilment, automation, gamification, and innovation.

Small & Fast Order Fulfilment is Key

Now that many companies are slowly emerging from the challenges of the past 12-20 months, new questions are taking centre stage around how brands can prepare for future disruptions. Which processes and systems are needed? What does the warehouse of the future look like, and what role do people have to play in it? 

The biggest challenge facing warehouses today and, in the future, is how to process online orders that often only consist of one or two pieces. Most warehouses have been traditionally employed to work at a pallet or box level. However, picking, packing, and shipping the small orders that have resulted from the boom in e-commerce represent something entirely different. Throw into the equation the increasingly prolonged next day cut-off times that many websites now offer, and the challenge just gets steeper.

Gone are the days when warehouses would have three days to process an order. Over the course of 2020, and throughout this year, same or next-day shipping has become the default expectation for many consumers. In fact, warehouses that do not adjust their processes accordingly to meet this new consumer expectation risk becoming obsolete – losing out to competitors entirely. 

Synchronise Man & Machine

Automation and robotisation of processes offer warehouses extra order fulfilment capabilities and, additionally, the potential to increase warehouse storage capacity. They are also becoming an increasingly important tool for a faster, more reliable, and efficient fulfilment process.

There are high hopes for the positive impact robotics and automation will bring to warehouse environments. The big advantage of using robotics is that companies can increase capacity in the warehouse in a flexible way, without having to commit themselves to advanced or large-scale automation systems with limited capacity and questionable ROI. 

Whether companies opt for greater automation, more robotics or both, people will always play a crucial role in the warehouse of the future – as there are simply some operations that cannot be performed as well by machines or robots as by people. For example, human beings provide flexibility and evaluative thinking when handling large or fragile products. Workforces can also quickly be scaled up in the event of peaks – meaning unexpected increases in orders can be absorbed quickly – so it’s always going to be important for both man and machine to work in cohesion.

Gamification Takes Centre Stage 

One of the key questions that presents itself to leaders in the warehouse and distribution centre space is how to make roles attractive and engaging to existing and potential employees. After all, how much fun is order picking when a robot is your closest colleague?

On this note, there arises the vital concept of ‘gamification’ within the warehouse environment. In a similar way to fitness apps RunKeeper or Strava, we can now give employees in warehouses new challenges and reward them as they take up and complete challenges successfully.

Furthermore, you can compare employee performance in real-time and managers can also set up team challenges, too. For example, moving a pallet can’t be compared to moving a box or a loose item. If performance is good, employees and teams can earn points towards a gift or extra time off, all while keeping the work engaging and challenging, thus maintaining the motivation of teams and individuals along the way.

‘Always On’ Innovation is Paramount

Aside from robotisation and gamification, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) are two other key components that will play leading roles in the warehouse of the future. For example, if you want to be able to process and ship that last minute order on time, the marginal gains that both can provide within the warehouse environment can make all the difference in ensuring a customer experiences a positive brand journey.

You can increase the picking density in a warehouse by merging orders into batches, but then you must sort the picked items by order again, and that takes up valuable time. AI and ML can help streamline this process to ensure that all orders are despatched on time and customer promises are adequately met.

At their core, AI and ML help increase operational efficiency. Another great example of this is comparing today’s order profile with order profiles from the past. Intelligent, self-learning systems can predict with greater accuracy what products will be ordered where and when, and how much time will be needed to process an order at the warehouse stage of the product’s journey.

As we increasingly move towards versionless, cloud-based software, more companies will have the ability to access the latest innovations. In an ‘always on’ microservices-architected, cloud-first environment, costly and slow upgrades are a thing of the past. That also means that innovations in AI & ML are also more accessible and available to a wider business and vertical audience.

Over the past year we have witnessed first-hand that the speed with which organisations implement innovation determines their level of success and the happiness of their direct customers. If the processes and systems within an organisation cannot follow the speed of change at a macro-economic and customer level, a company or warehouse will struggle to navigate the winds of future change.

While certainly challenging, the past 20 months also unprecedentedly accelerated the pace of change across many areas of business. With supply chains and warehouses now occupying such an important position in board-level thinking and strategy, it’s crucial that the warehouse teams of today keep one eye on what the warehouses of tomorrow will look like too – so as to build resilience and strength for whatever challenges lie ahead. 

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