Beyond Robots

EFFICIENCYThere are many ways to automate your warehouses.

By Derek O'Carroll

Technology-driven automation often sparks images of "robots," especially in warehouse situations where thousands zip throughout a fulfillment center picking orders. Take Amazon for example; which has determined that adding an army of robots is the key to improving revenue and the customer experience by making their distribution centers (DCs) as efficient as possible.

For small to medium-sized businesses, the ability to compete with large brands deploying leading edge technology may seem unimaginable. The reality is that there are technology solutions that can make warehouse and distribution operations efficient across smaller businesses' entire operations. Improving efficiency enhances margins and drives bottom line impacts while allowing for successful omnichannel growth.

The results of using solutions that marry automation and technology for warehouse efficiency exist today. Some improve perfect order rates and lower costs and processing time by reducing human error and speeding up the picking process. Others streamline workflows and order processing by removing inefficient human intervention that focuses solely on checking order details and accuracy – actions technology can easily manage.

Solutions and Processes

Advanced solutions can exchange information from one system to another to reduce incorrect shipping documentation, prevent mispicks, limit missed delivery deadlines and send tracking information automatically to customers. These systems also track, monitor and chase supplier delays. The integration of warehouse systems with a carrier's shipping system speeds, streamlines and automates shipping workflows to improve labor efficiency and provide a positive customer experience.

At a basic level, technology eliminates the use of pen and paper and manual order and inventory tracking. Technology can offer real-time tracking of and access to critical information central to inventory management and order fulfillment.

Today's warehouse environments include one or more of these technology solutions:

  • Cloud-Based Inventory Management Systems: Surprisingly, the use of pen and paper for warehouse tracking is commonplace. The number of hours wasted checking stock, noting numbers and updating systems is vast. With a cloud-based inventory management system, retailers can walk the warehouse checking stock levels and instantly update sales channels. An all-in-one omnichannel retail solution captures changes and updates, shares sales data and accurately reports real-time stock levels. Departments can promptly reconcile account payables and receivables, stock reorders, etc.
  • Integrated Shipping: Systems that integrate with well-known carriers (e.g., DPD, FedEx, and UPS) can help retailers streamline and automate shipping workflows. These systems let warehouse teams print shipping labels instantly and charge retailers the shipment costs automatically. A central management system collects order information and reflects current processing and delivery status. By eliminating manual processes, these systems improve order-processing time and ensure orders ship to the correct customer using the most appropriate shipping method, such as value, weight, volume or delivery location.
  • Electronic Data Interchange (EDI): This computer-to-computer exchange of digital documents offers several key benefits including preventing double selling and expense of double shipping; reducing the creation of incorrect shipping documentation; preventing mispicks and shipping of incorrect items; avoiding missed delivery deadlines; tracking, monitoring and chasing supplier delays; and sending tracking information to customers automatically.
  • Bluetooth Barcode Scanners: The use of Bluetooth barcode scanners in picking and packing processes has eliminated the outdated use of pen and paper to track order fulfillment. Barcode scanners reduce human error and speed up the entire fulfillment process. Immediate bottom line impact results from the improvements in a warehouses perfect order rate and reduction in costs and processing times.
  • Automation Bots: Used in the dispatch process, this technology improves overall workflows by removing the middle person whose job was to check each order and mark it allocated, fulfilled and ready for dispatch. Bots automatically download orders from online sales channels (Amazon, BigCommerce, eBay, Magento, Shopify, etc.) and instantly allocate the product for fulfillment from the available stock. The order is changed to ready for dispatch once rules for payment, allocation and fulfillment status are met. Automatically the warehouse team receives the order for picking, packing and shipping. Using automation bots speeds up order processing and frees up warehouse staff to focus on the workflows that increase customer satisfaction and drive more sales by quickly picking, packing, and shipping orders.
  • Value of KPIs

Retailers considering implementation of these technologies within their own warehouse should consider the following key performance indicators (KPIs) when assessing effectiveness.

1. Percentage of orders shipped / returned (monthly basis)

2. Percentage of returns due to shipment of incorrect items

3. Average length of time it takes warehouse staff to print, pick, pack, and ship products

4. Average time a customer waits between ordering and receiving an item

5. Total time spent updating stock levels in the existing inventory management system

6. Number of times items have been oversold (past three months)

KPIs allow retailers to understand the effectiveness of their processes. Comparing pre- and post-implementation of new technologies can provide critical insight needed to understand the return on investment and justification for further investment in warehouse improvements.

Derek O'Carroll is CEO of Brightpearl, responsible for the overall company strategy and for delivering on Brightpearl's mission to automate retail. 

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