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.”
Expanding your ecommerce business by opening more distribution centers (DCs) can be a beneficial strategy for reducing shipping costs and delivery times. However, more isn't always better. The expenses associated with opening, operating, and integrating additional DCs can easily negate the cost savings and logistical advantages they provide. To figure out if the numbers will work in your favor, you should consider the following variables.
Number of SKUs vs. Order Volume
In general, the more SKUs you have, the more it will cost to coordinate with your suppliers to maintain inventory levels across multiple DCs. However, those costs can be offset if your order volume is high enough. As we previously mentioned, a new DC can reduce shipping costs (assuming it's closer to your customers, of course). The greater your order volume, the greater your savings on shipping. When determining the cost-effectiveness of acquiring a new DC, you'll want those shipping savings to exceed the added inventory and warehousing expenses.
Average Shipping Weight
The average dim weight of your orders should also be included in your cost/benefit analysis. Heavy orders will generate bigger cost savings when shipping from multiple DCs. Conversely, you may see minimal or no cost savings on lightweight orders.
Multiple systems may need to interface in order to properly count and route orders to the right distribution center. Can your order management system incorporate a new distribution center?
Improving your distribution network's size and efficiency by opening new centers can be a solid strategy for maintaining a competitive edge - but only if the pros, cons, and costs have been thoroughly vetted. Alternatively, a third-party fulfillment provider may be a better solution. You can reduce transit times, cut shipping costs, and increase order volume without taking on the risk of opening and operating a whole other distribution center. At Fulfillment Works, we utilize customized solutions to provide clients with full-service fulfillment including logistics management, data solutions, warehouse services (with facilities strategically located in Nevada and Connecticut), and much more. Contact us to learn how we can help with your distribution goals.
Ecommerce businesses stand to benefit from implementing environmentally friendly business practices – and changing your approach to packaging is a great way to start. It can save you money, improve logistical efficiency, and drive home your brand's commitment to the environment with every single delivery. Follow these tips to start your transition into more sustainable packaging.
Choose environmentally-friendly packaging materials
Evaluate your current packaging for materials that can harm the environment - especially those that can't be recycled, take a long time to breakdown (like polystyrene foam and plastics), or that release toxins as they breakdown (like certain inks and adhesives). Can you switch these out for recyclable, eco-friendly equivalents? For example, corrugated cardboard tubes and scraps work well as dunnage and are easy to recycle. Similarly, laser printing, thermal printing, and soy-based inks are excellent alternatives to toxic inks and dyes.
Pack more efficiently
In addition to materials, your packing practices are also important. Larger-than-required packages waste filler materials and take up excess space in shipping vehicles, contributing to fuel consumption. Automated box making machines or custom-designed packaging are both eco-friendly solutions that not only save the earth, they save you money by conserving materials and reducing product damage during shipping.
Evaluate your logistics
Take a close look at how packages move from warehouse to doorstep for opportunities to reduce waste. Depending on your products and customers, there may be more you can do to combine individual orders into bulk shipments. If you notice lots of unused space in the trucks leaving your warehouse, consider co-shipping with other companies to reduce fuel costs.
More and more websites are adding subscription order services for their customers. The model may benefit your current ecommerce site, or be the major feature for your next business. In either case, subscription fulfillment has some challenges that you may not come across in standard fulfillment operations. Fortunately, fulfillment providers like yours truly are uniquely prepared to tackle these challenges.
Take order volume, for example. Because of the predictable delivery cycle for orders, subscription fulfillment is subject to peaks and valleys of volume. One week, your warehouse is packing and shipping like mad to meet the subscription deadline. The next, everything is quiet as you prepare for the next subscription offering. Predicting volume from subscription to subscription can be difficult, so it's critical to have flexible warehouse space for storing inventory and sufficient labor for fulfilling orders. Because they work with multiple customers, fulfillment providers have the flexibility to scale space and labor to accommodate volume fluctuations easily.
It’s also important to get the logistical timing right for subscriptions. Subscription boxes are often promoted extensively in social media, so you’ll want to synchronize arrival dates so that subscribers in different shipping zones receive their orders at approximately the same time. This requires close communication and negotiation with carriers. Logistics is an area where Fulfillment Works excels – we help you to optimize your distribution network to reduce transportation costs and work with multiple carriers to negotiate competitive shipping rates.
Additionally, fulfillment providers are invested in warehouse management systems and data analyzing solutions. When you find the right fulfillment partner, you can leverage their resources without the overhead investment. As a result, you’ll be able to improve inventory management and process orders faster - ultimately, enabling you provide a better subscription service.
In addition to struggling with issues related to logistics management expertise and software, many ecommerce businesses are stymied by the physical limitations of their facilities – so much so that the demand for major warehouse improvements is on the rise.
A recent survey from Zebra Technologies Corp, which polled 1,400 warehouse IT and operations management professionals, indicated that the worldwide demand for warehouse space and inventory management solutions is increasing. According to the study, 48% of participants said that they are currently working to increase their number of warehouses - while 76% plan to increase warehouses by the year 2020. Other interesting takeaways from the survey include:
Another study from CRBE also found an increasing demand for warehouse space, mostly due to a desire to improve reverse logistics efficiency.
In ecommerce, the sale often goes to whoever has faster, cheaper, and easier shipping options – and improving your distribution network through size and efficiency is a solid strategy for maintaining a competitive edge. If you haven’t done like the respondents to Zebra Tech’s survey and imagined what your warehouse needs will be in 5 years, you may get left behind. If you’re not sure where to start or what factors to consider, we’re always happy to help.