Kick off 2021 With Eight Big Ideas From the On The Move Podcast
January 10, 2021
The challenges have been huge and unprecedented. We’ll remember 2020 as the year when:
- The pandemic intensified operational safety concerns.
- Consumers changed their buying behaviors in significant ways, accelerating e-commerce growth and forever altering expectations for just how quick order fulfillment and delivery can be.
- In response, distribution center (DC) operators implemented new guidelines to enhance worker well-being and adapted to increased order volumes.
Distribution and fulfillment (D&F) operators have had to respond with a comprehensive approach to workplace safety that also supports the need for increased productivity. That’s given us a lot to talk about on the On The Move Podcast. Indeed, we’ve covered so many topics that it would be useful to wrap up the year by reviewing eight of the biggest ideas and best advice we’ve doled out from our podcast series.
So here’s a look back at the tools and technologies you need to thrive in this uncertain environment and prepare for whatever comes next in 2021 and beyond.
1) Adapt, Deploy and Deliver With Autonomous Robots
During the NextGen Supply Chain fall virtual conference, we learned about how fulfillment is now a strategic differentiator for businesses. So I wondered how autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can enable businesses to not only survive in 2021 but also grow by improving omnichannel experiences for customers. Eric Harty, vice president of robotic solutions offering at Honeywell Robotics, joined us on the podcast to explain how AMRs enable workflows to be adapted to keep up with the volume and velocity of orders. When integrated with other business systems, AMRs can:
- Optimize picking and routing
- Accelerate decision-making to speed up fulfillment processes
- Increase the accuracy of orders, which can improve customer satisfaction and help to avoid product returns
“AMRs can work all day and night to pick and pack and replenish inventory. And as the pandemic continues, AMRs can enable DCs to reduce downtime due to labor availability and social distancing,” Harty said.
2) Simulate the Future of Your DC
We also journeyed into the future of omnichannel distribution by exploring the possibilities of emerging simulation capabilities that are based on artificial intelligence (AI).
John Daugherty, director of simulation and analytics, operations and solutions development at Honeywell Intelligrated, made the point that AI is comprised of a variety of elements and simulation working collaboratively. His vision for how AI and machine-learning techniques can be applied includes robust and reliable capabilities to predict future D&F system performance.
“Optimizing the accuracy of simulations and predictions is really about the quality and the appropriateness of the data — and not just having a lot of information,” Daugherty said.
“AI and machine learning use data to make predictions with a confidence level. It’s not a 1:1 ratio between the amount of data that you provide and the level of confidence in an AI prediction. That’s where training comes in. If you include a lot of noise in your training model, you’re going to get predictions that are wildly inaccurate. So this isn’t an area that I would recommend doing without consulting an AI expert,” he continued.
3) Enhance Decisions With Smart Warehouse Software
Speaking of intelligent solutions, in another episode we talked about how modern warehouse execution systems are engineered to provide the next level of enterprise insights to emerging challenges.
Nicole James, senior director, software offering management at Honeywell Intelligrated, described how warehouse execution systems can be applied across a spectrum of fulfillment scenarios. Smart warehouse software can help you to balance workflows, prioritize orders, and increase throughput — all while reducing costs.
“With these insights, we can optimize order fulfillment beyond the four walls of the distribution center and across the entire supply chain network. This is really changing the game,” James said.
4) Create a Safer and More Productive DC
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s how to work smarter. While e-commerce accelerated, safety concerns also intensified. In response, DC managers are implementing guidelines to enhance worker well-being.
One of our podcast guests, Chris Feuell, chief marketing officer at Honeywell Intelligrated, said that not only will these new measures require a comprehensive approach to workplace safety, they must also support the need for increased productivity.
Among the shifts are new business models intended to better meet the needs of consumers as well as different operating practices to enhance the safety of facilities and equipment. In DCs where operators used to have employees share equipment for voice-directed workflows, some are now giving everyone their own headsets and other mobile devices.
DC managers are also adapting to increased order volumes. Feuell noted, “In some cases, those customers need to even accelerate that productivity because there’s been hyper-growth in certain e-commerce vertical markets as more and more consumers have been shopping and purchasing online or buying online and picking up curbside right at the store.”
5) How Data Science Impacts Labor in the Supply Chain
Data science is bringing game-changing insights to the labor supply chain. It’s now possible, for example, to utilize advanced labor management systems (LMS) to determine the number of workers you’ll need to run your operation at peak efficiency next week.
Jason Franklin, senior software product marketing manager at Honeywell Intelligrated, came on the podcast to explain how this works.
“You can also predict where each of your employees will work most effectively, which incentives will motivate them to get their jobs done, and who’s thinking about quitting,” Franklin said. Some LMS systems track changes in employee behavior and based on that data, can accurately identify which employees are likely to leave.
“… LMS is about giving you visibility so you can focus your training efforts (and) your process improvements in the right area,” Franklin said. “That’s the way you can look at attrition. Not only can you say you’ll need 12 people, (LMS) also can tell you that these (other) two people are at risk based on how they have been behaving over the last four to six weeks.”
6) Increase Reliability by Connecting Technology and People
The connection between technology and people was a recurring theme. In another episode, Eric Rice, principal product marketing manager at Honeywell Intelligrated, stated that social distancing protocols are changing the way DC operators monitor and maintain equipment.
Connected technologies and services are augmenting diagnostic capabilities with real-time, sensor-based analytics while on-site technicians leverage tools to collaborate with off-site experts. Rice said these strategies combine to create more robust lifecycle management programs compared to traditional approaches based around break-fix or preventative maintenance models.
“Those things are just like they sound. You wait for something to break and suffer the downtime and consequences,” Rice said. “Or you can reduce the risk by being more proactive with the preventative approach. Unfortunately, even the proactive model is based on how long the equipment has been running and not necessarily the true condition.”
That can lead to what Rice called “over-maintaining and over-spending” in order to avoid unplanned downtime. A better approach, according to Rice, is to incorporate machine-learning models that help you to train and empower employees about equipment and processes. That’s becoming more critical as experienced employees retire; their skills and expertise cannot be replaced.
“You can upscale employees with less experience. Think of (connected technologies and services) like a machine that can feel and hear issues just like a very experienced employee,” Rice said.
7) Choose Micro-Fulfillment for Omnichannel Retailing
The impacts of the pandemic brought many new challenges in 2020, and solutions for addressing them in D&F processes became another common topic on the podcast. One of the most interesting episodes focused on how high-density, small-footprint, micro-fulfillment center (MFC) automation has emerged where retailers need it most: with direct-to-consumer delivery or in-store pickup.
MFCs combine the latest technological advancements — proven in large-scale DCs — to help retailers shorten fulfillment cycle times and reduce the distance between themselves and their customers.
Applying DC systems to smaller MFCs provides retailers with the flexibility to scale with the volume of orders and the number and variety of SKUs, according to John Dillon, vice president of project management at Honeywell Intelligrated. MFCs also enable retailers to optimize the space available for D&F, regardless of whether it’s located in a stand-alone facility or inside an existing store. The main benefit of MFCs, however, is how they can enable retailers to keep up with changes in e-commerce orders.
“People want throughput. They want to know that they can get the most orders fulfilled out of that location,” Dillon said.
8) Achieve Future-Proof Scalability in DC Operations
Every DC has its own unique challenges. From labor shortages to returns handling, operators must use strategic planning to anticipate future demands. Fortunately for DC operators, there are many solutions to choose from to make sure their fulfillment center is well-equipped to tackle rising fulfillment expectations.
AI, robotic automation and voice technology are just a few tools DCs can deploy to streamline workflows. By integrating these solutions into their DCs, operators can find answers to today’s problems and prepare for the uncertainties that the future may bring.
That’s why it’s so important for DCs to be able to scale as operations and fulfillment expectations change, according to John Dillon, who appeared in another podcast episode to discuss the key components of future-proof and scalable DCs. He identified three critical steps that DC operators should take:
- Optimize warehouse processes to get the most out of your existing assets.
- Connect DC infrastructure to understand distribution process data and leverage insights from the data to redesign processes.
- Deploy advanced automation, including fixed-point robotics, automated mobile robotics, or automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) to reduce dependence on labor.
“It’s difficult to predict change. E-commerce has grown so unevenly along with labor volatility … You don’t have to look any farther today than the situation we’re going through with (the pandemic) to understand why it’s so important for distribution centers to be future-proof,” Dillon said.
Insights to Grow in 2021
In 2021 and beyond, companies will need to utilize all available tools, technologies and fulfillment strategies to enhance workforce safety and drive peak productivity levels in their DCs. That’s why I’m resharing these highlights from our On The Move Podcast Series. Our guests’ insights about distribution trends and the latest technologies can help you to solve some of the biggest e-commerce challenges DCs are grappling with.
Be sure to subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify or Google. And if you’re interested in discovering more about how to enhance your operational resiliency, be sure to download our latest edition of the On The Move publication.
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