Emerging technologies are a hot topic in the world of distribution and fulfillment operations. From advancements in mechatronic picking to new types of cloud-based WMS software, it's easy to come away from an industry conference feeling awestruck at what the future might hold. However, the recent DC Measures Study from the Warehousing Education and Research Council (WERC) indicates that the actual adoption and integration of these technologies is slow, with little signs of popularizing any time soon.
According to WERC's survey of 549 industry professionals, more than two-thirds of warehouse managers said people (not technologies) are the most important assets in their operations. Reflective of that, 35% of the fulfillment centers surveyed said they currently do not use a warehouse management system (WMS) – instead relying on "manual means such as Excel and disparate modules" to handle typical WMS functions. When asked about technologies they expected to implement over the next 10 years, more than 25% of those surveyed said they were “not likely to incorporate” sensors (e.g. RFID) or robotics/automation equipment. More than 50% said they were not likely to incorporate 3D printing, blockchain, drones, or driverless vehicles.
So, what types of technology are warehouses using? According to WERC’s survey,
- 25.8% have installed voice-directed picking (up from 5.7% in 2008)
- 18.3% use radio frequency identification (RFID)
- 12% use pick-to-light
- 11.1% have installed automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS)
- 75% use some type of barcode and RF scanning system
- 42.7% plan to implement “some form of real-time data and analytics” in the next 1-2 years (it’s worth noting that certain types of WMS, like the one we offer, have these features built-in)
- 33% plan to implement mobile technology within 1-2 years
- 26.6% plan to implement Internet-of-Things (IoT) technology within 1-2 years
While warehouses’ adoption rate of technology has certainly not been fast, it may not be as slow as this report indicates. After all, technology that is growing, like WMS solutions and IoT technology, are prerequisites to successfully deploying more advanced systems like robotics and automation equipment. Perhaps this is a case of “learning to walk before you run.”
Inventory that isn't carefully tracked and managed can create big problems down the road. Excess inventory occupies warehouse space and can tie up your working capital, while stockouts can contribute to a decrease in sales and an increase in dissatisfied customers. To keep the state of your inventory healthy and profitable, you should incorporate the following best practices into your day-to-day inventory management.
A.B.C. - Always Be Checking
In order to get the most robust picture of your inventory and how it moves, you should keep your data up to date with daily stock checks. Ideally, this should be an automated process executed through your inventory management software. By keeping close tabs on the changes in your inventory levels, you'll be able identify supply issues and solve them before they cause real damage to your bottom line.
Address the root causes of excess stock, ASAP
Overstock is an easy problem to fix via liquidation or donation. However, falling back on those strategies regularly without addressing the root cause of the excess inventory could cause you to lose out on profits in the long run. Take a serious approach to identifying what's causing excess inventory and develop a plan to 1) reduce the creation of new excess and 2) find ways to sell off the overstock more effectively.
Identify & prioritize your inventory's winners
Keeping a level inventory of all your products is a common inventory management strategy. However, it’s important to determine which products are your "winners" and focus on keeping those items in-stock, rather than just trying to maintain the same amount of product across the board. Running out of stock on a product that sells quickly is lost potential revenue.
Collaborate with your sales & operations teams
Inventory data is an important consideration when making logistical, purchasing, and fulfillment decisions. Of course, more data is better. Aligning your inventory management with your sales and operations teams can lead to more effective inventory forecasting – which involves estimating the quantity of a product or service that consumers will purchase based on data. Accurate tracking, measuring, and forecasting of inventory is crucial for seamless order fulfillment, financial decision-making, customer satisfaction, brand perception, and other aspects that drive the success of an ecommerce company.
In a busy fulfillment center, picking efficiency is a crucial element for shipping orders correctly and in a timely manner. Of course, fulfillment management systems, warehouse technology, and other innovations have done a lot to help pickers and reduce human error. However, there are some simple changes you can make to streamline your picking process even further. Below are some of our favorite low-tech tips for improving picking accuracy and efficiency.
Prominent Inventory IDs
Ensure that your entire inventory has clearly marked, easy to find identification (i.e. part numbers, barcodes, etc.) to reduce picking errors and time spent tracking down the correct products or product variations.
Kitting & Presorting
In kit assembly, or "kitting," you take individual items from your inventory and bundle them together as a unique SKU. The kits are then ready to ship when orders are placed – saving more time compared to picking all the products individually. Another strategy is to presort orders into groups so that orders requiring the same products are filled together – boosting picker efficiency.
Make sure that the most frequently ordered products are slotted in a layout that as close as possible to the pick/pack area to minimize travel time as the order picker fills orders. For year-round efficiency, periodically review your slotting assignments to account for changes in customer demand (especially for seasonal items).
As ecommerce businesses gain more customers and add more SKUs to their inventories, some begin to struggle with the physical limitations of their warehouse facilities – negatively impact in the speed and efficiency of your fulfillment operations. Before you reach that point, look for ways you can consolidate inventory, cut excess supplies, and really get the most out of your current warehouse space.
If you want to implement a backordering system on your ecommerce site, communication is key – not just with your inventory managers but with your customers as well.
Before allowing customer to place backorders on your site, you should have a detailed understanding of your inventory management. Keep the lines of communication open and active with your fulfillment team to help determine the volume of backorders you’d be able to manage. Without this foundation, your backorder system could quickly start causing problems.
Once you’ve established that basis for working with backordered inventory, you’ll need to focus on the customer experience. From the shopper’s experience, ordering products that won’t be delivered right away can be risky or inconvenient. You can improve the backorder experience for your customers through informative communication. Be honest with estimated delivery dates and keep customers in the loop regarding delays as they happen. Let them know when you have the product back in stock, when their order is being processed, and when their order has shipped. If you predict another stockout, advise customers to order refills sooner, rather than later.
Using intel supplied by your inventory management team, you’ll be able to manage expectations and be forthcoming on order status to provide your shoppers with a smooth backordering experience.
Efficiency is a crucial element for success in the warehouse or distribution center. Previously, we focused on ways to utilize warehouse space more efficiently. In this blog post, we'll go over 3 fundamental tips for more efficient fulfillment operations and inventory management processes.
A laissez-faire approach to slotting is detrimental to overall throughput and efficient space utilization. You've probably heard of the 80/20 rule: 20% of your SKUs usually account for 80% of your sales. Those top-performing SKUs should be slotted in a layout that 1) reduces the frequency and urgency of replenishment trips by providing sufficient space for extra stock, and 2) allows pickers to quickly and easily access them. Be sure to periodically review your slotting assignments to account for changes in customer demand (especially for seasonal items).
Faster intra-warehouse transit
Aside from changing the layout and slotting assignments, consider investing in equipment that will minimize the travel time for stock and staff within the warehouse. For example, conveyor systems can improve efficiency by reducing product handling and walking distance.
In kit assembly, or "kitting," you take individual items from your inventory and bundle them together as a unique SKU. The kits are then ready-to-ship when orders are placed – saving more time compared to picking each of the products at the time of order.