The future of warehousing

Warehousing is undergoing a sea-change with the introduction of drone technology, automation, and robotics. Zebra Technologies, Landmark Group and LogSquare share their expertise on what the new world of warehousing will look like
 Hozefa Saylawala, Middle East director, Zebra Technologies.
Hozefa Saylawala, Middle East director, Zebra Technologies.


The regional logistics sector is undergoing rapid and transformational changes, bringing in smart technologies, robotics, and more to increase productivity, accuracy, and competitiveness, while reducing down-time, and improving processing times, and safety. The warehousing sector is undergoing a sea-change. The two main areas where smart tech is impacting warehousing are how goods are physically moved and how the decisions are made on which path to move goods on.  One is the physical automation in warehouses to operate at much higher speeds, volumes and flexibility. The other are the algorithms that are optimising the movements and the decisions.

“The regional retail sector is undergoing rapid transformation in an effort to remain competitive and respond to the demands of consumers for a more omni-channel approach to shopping, and as e-commerce gains more traction. This is putting pressure on warehousing and logistics, reinforced by one of the key findings from Zebra’s 2024 Warehouse Vision Study, which shows that consumers expect faster delivery times and this is impacting warehouse operations – 46% of survey respondents say this is the main driver behind their growth plans,” said Hozefa Saylawala, Middle East director, Zebra Technologies.

There is a strong commitment to invest in warehouse modernisation projects in the region, and Zebra technologies’ survey shows that 80% of respondents are investing in technology to stay competitive, and that augmenting workers with technology is the best way to introduce automation into the warehouse. Just under three quarters (70%) of survey respondents are planning to do this by giving staff new mobile devices.

“Worker morale improves when they have devices that are instinctive, easy and comfortable to use and which also reduce the training time required – especially important with temporary and seasonal workers,” noted Sayalwala.

Over the past couple of decades, LogSquare observed incremental improvements and technological advancements in supply chain at large and in warehousing. Warehouses have now evolved to become fulfilment centres.

The changes in warehousing were not specifically triggered by smart tech, according to LogSquare, but by disruptors in the MENA region, such as e-commerce, omni channel, reverse logistics and on demand deliveries. However, smart technologies played a role in re-shaping the sector capabilities and composure.

“Warehouses are and will continue evolving in terms of the tasks they perform, personnel qualifications and technology they embrace to ensure they cope and fulfil. The typical warehouse process has witnessed changes. Activities pertaining to VAS [value added services], sorting, consolidation and reverse logistics have gained importance and are more focal.  The qualifications of warehouse personnel have changed. Technology savvy professionals are solicited and compose a higher number of the human capital.
Smart tech is applied in warehousing in general yet typically justified in some key functions like picking, VAS, and sorting,” said Jacques Adem, co- founder & MD LogSquare.

Warehouse robotics
According to Mihin Shah, chief supply chain officer, Landmark Group, one of the largest volume movers, warehouse automation gives the benefit of being able to handle volumes at speed. Automation also gives the flexibility to handle different combinations of inbound-outbound movements such as pallets to cartons or pieces or vice-versa which is valuable not only for retail but a lot of other industries. 

“You need scale, capability and investments to handle automation that organisation with smaller volumes may not have. We have hence started a third party logistics service through which we provide the benefits of automation to other parties.  We have invested in automation so others don’t have to – and still they can use the benefits of automation,” he stated.

The Zebra Warehouse Vision Study 2024 indicates that 94% of repetitive tasks still require human involvement but there is clearly a push to accelerate automation in warehouses. Specifically on robotics, by 2024, 30% of survey respondents plan to use robotics (up eight per cent from today) in order to improve overall efficiency and worker productivity.

“Robotics will not replace people and automation generally will not eliminate jobs but will help to augment human performance and capabilities - team and individual worker productivity is a stated goal for the majority of survey respondents. Workflows that are currently executed by workers will shift toward execution through intelligent automation. Tasks that require walking will shift to robotics solutions such as in the warehouse. Of course, one of the great advantages of robotics is that it not only enriches tasks with assisted and augmented reality technologies but also creates a more rewarding working environment for people, which helps attract and retain talent within the sector,” said Saylawala.

According to Shah, it is easy to talk about latest tech, but the key is to apply it in the right places for customer experience and business benefit.

“Instead of being enamoured by hype, we are continuously looking for smart applications in our logistics.  In our Saudi Arabia Home Centre furniture warehouse, we are using auto—driving/guided vehicles that put-away and pick furniture on their own.  In our Dubai Mega DC, we are using advanced shuttle systems to bring ‘goods to persons’ to exponentially increase productivity of warehouse teams.  For our deliveries that involve installations we use algorithms to optimise the planning, scheduling and routing of trucks and crews.  In addition, we are continuously expanding applications of tech in back offices – whether it is scaling up use of RPA (robotics process automation) or being the first to do a pilot and use case for block chain in our imports transactions,” he noted.

Drones in warehousing
Drone technology is already part of every day life, and adding this technology to warehouse applications can see a multitude of benefits. The Zebra Warehouse Vision study indicates that, by 2024, 26% of respondents plan to use drones (an increase of seven per cent from today).

“Drones are viewed as part of the wider automation process that is expected to enhance team and individual worker productivity that is a priority for almost two-thirds of our survey respondents,” stated Saylawala, Zebra Technologies.

Drones are being utilised to complete cycle counts in warehouses. Moving the process of data capture into the air provides on-demand checks and avoids the additional time and expenses spent on having employees access difficult to reach locations within the warehouse. Moving material around efficiently and accurately enables manufacturers and distributors to reduce costs, improve productivity and meet demanding customer schedules.

However, according to Adem, on the practical side, drones require further regulatory steps in terms of air traffic control, definition of routes and pads and the creation of an authority who can control and regulate their use.  I foresee drones as part of a delivery network rather than a stand-alone and most likely in conjunction with other systems like a futuristic Click & Collect.

Expanding footprints
 Zebra’s 2024 Warehouse Vision Survey shows that 64% of businesses plan to increase their number of warehouses and 87% of warehouse decision makers said they’re in the process of expanding their footprint. Online shopping and the ongoing success of digital retail business such as Amazon, ASOS and eBay, has pushed organisations to reconfigure their supply chains and expand warehouse space.

The study highlights the growing demands on warehouses: 86% of the survey’s respondents said that they expect to expand shipping volumes; and 81% are investing in returns handling. These trends mean that more space is needed – 87% of respondents are looking to extend sites and 82% to build more.

“To keep pace, warehouses will need to ‘staff-up’. Industry projections indicate that worker numbers will need to grow by 17% to 44.6 million. Indeed, recruitment and retention are hot topics as 60% of those surveyed are concerned about these. Finally, and critically, while warehouse leaders understand the potential of new technology, 77% of respondents admit that they are slow to implement it,” said Saylawala.

Landmark Group’s warehouse break-thorough
Shah noted that the Landmark Group ‘Mega Distribution Centre’ is a ‘landmark’ in logistics in the region. 

“As an interesting development for the logistics world here, Landmark Group, offering this facility for third party logistics use for all industries under its newly created business of Omega Logistics.  For global brands looking for regional distribution, this hence now is a great possibility to handle material combinations of pallets, cartons and pieces and even garment on hangers.  Our goods to person system can improve productivity for warehouse workers by over 200% and is usable not only for retail but also industries such as spare parts, electronics and FMCG.  We even have yard storage to be able to give one stop shop for requirements of all shapes and sizes,” he said. 

“The main challenge these days is handling volatility and the changing mix of ecommerce.  Averages are no longer pertinent as warehouses need to be able to ramp up and down on short notice.  In addition, warehouses need ability to transform every year to increasing shift to ecommerce, where warehouse becomes the biggest store.  In both these aspects, warehouse automation gives us flexible capacity to process in and out with speed both for ecommerce and for store distribution that would not have been possible in a manual warehouse.  This is also what Landmark Group’s Omega Logistics offers to third parties who want to use this facility for both regional distribution and ecommerce.”

We are witnessing a rise in smart technology tools. Some will be successful and some will fade over time. The main focus should always be on the ultimate use. Deployment expertise and process know-how play a big role in the success of any robotic application.

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