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A dumb box no more: Warehouses are built with intelligence in mind

The warehouse of the future is efficient and loaded with information

The modern warehouse needs to accommodate many transportation types, but it also must be equipped with business intelligence to improve real-time performance. (Photo: Locus Robotics)

PHILADELPHIA — The basic warehouse is made up of four walls. What makes a facility effective is what is built inside those four walls. In 2022, that means building facilities with the future in mind, yet one capable of leveraging robotics and business intelligence today.

The warehouse is no longer just a dumb box.

With estimates of just between 5% and 10% of all global warehouses having some form of automation, and the need to improve efficiency, especially in e-commerce warehouse operations, the opportunity ahead is massive for warehouse operators. But warehouses that are not capable of handling sustainability programs, electric vehicles or any of the modern technologies that generate reams of data sets are no longer considered the future.

Whether it is robots, EVs, solar panels or some other technology, that data collection and analysis is now vital to running an efficient warehouse.

Turning data into business decisions

Jason Lum, sales executive for Locus Robotics, told an audience at the recent Home Delivery World at the Pennsylvania Convention Center that Locus is turning data sets in the warehouse into actionable information.

“How do we make the associates in the warehouse more efficient?” he asked the audience, before explaining how the desire to get packages delivered in one day has driven the need for more information and efficiency.

“You need to drive that information layer,” Lum said. “When you think about robotics, it’s about [adding] that layer of BI (business intelligence).”

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While Locus is known primarily as a warehouse robotics company, Lum said it is really a solutions provider. That includes a robust dashboard and reporting system designed to provide the insights warehouse operators need to manage employees and robots in a cohesive manner.

“My job is to make sure everyone in the world has the data in front of them,” Lum noted.

On-the-fly adjustments

Saying that the ultimate goal is to improve line per hour and unit per hour performance, Lum pointed to the opportunity BI affords — from gamification of the workforce to strategically adjusting staffing/robotic placement on the fly.

Among the data Locus’ system can collect are metrics on worker performance (hourly, weekly and monthly); inventory flow; labor, bot and picking balance management with heat maps; and a 360-degree view of the entire warehouse operation.

That information, though, needs to flow to more than just the CEO, Lum said, pointing to images on the screen of warehouses that provided dashboards on large viewing screens placed strategically throughout warehouses. The data, he said, “is for the guy on the ground.”

Trending information may be important for executives, but a floor manager needs to know if one area of the warehouse is behind on its picking goals.

“That’s where the BI tools [shine]. I get to see the information quickly,” Lum said. “Our goal is to ensure that every piece of information … you can slice and dice. Do you want to see employee pick rates? We can do that.”

Robots need some help

While business intelligence is helpful in managing the warehouse, that BI — and the rapidly accelerating use of robotics — doesn’t happen if the architects of modern warehouses are not taking into consideration the design elements needed for robotics, electric vehicles and even drones.

Commercial real estate firm Prologis represents more than 5,800 global customers and has been focused on ensuring its facilities are prepped for the future, even if that future is now today.

“Chances are if you have a package on your doorstep today, there is a chance it came through one of our facilities,” Todd Lewis, vice president of Prologis Ventures, said in a separate address at Home Delivery World.

Lewis noted that Prologis is the largest solar company in the world, although just 5% of its facilities currently have rooftop solar panels. But Prologis’ efforts go far beyond building sustainable energy initiatives into its buildings.

“What type of transportation is going to arrive at our facilities tomorrow?” Lewis asked. “We need to work on that today.

“We’re trying to invest [in] technology that can help our clients stay in the facilities they are in today,” he added.

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Lewis pointed to some of the data collection efforts that take place. In California, for instance, Prologis has installed scanners at entrances to record all truck traffic entering the facility to meet California’s “indirect reporting rule.” That rule requires documentation of all trucks to enter as well as type and other identifying information. The technology automates a process that could be time-consuming and expensive to do manually.

Robots attract clients

Turning to robotics, Lewis called out Locus’ technologies as keys to not only helping speed picking processes and reduce costs, but also for helping facilities attract new tenants.

“[Robots help real estate] so that when you move in the facility is ready for the technology,” he said, also noting electric vehicle access as another example. Prologis has an EV business that helps its clients prepare for large-scale deployments at facilities. This includes charging infrastructure and other considerations.

And all of these things generate data, which ties back into business intelligence. Real-time access to information allows managers to quickly shift staff or bots to achieve goals, Lum said. This includes tapping into data from order systems.

“If I can see my open orders, then I can flood my associates and robots into these areas,” he added. “I’m Tom Brady out there making audibles all the time. If I know a blitz is coming, I can make a change.”

Locus also provides low energy Bluetooth tags for employees that connect to the system, allowing for the gamification of operations. In the end, though, the use of BI is about managing the entire warehouse operation, not just the robots.

“I’m going to look at priority picks, priority orders so I can adjust my staff. That’s what BI is all about,” Lum concluded.

Click for more articles by Brian Straight.

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Brian Straight

Brian Straight leads FreightWaves' Modern Shipper brand as Managing Editor. A journalism graduate of the University of Rhode Island, he has covered everything from a presidential election, to professional sports and Little League baseball, and for more than 10 years has covered trucking and logistics. Before joining FreightWaves, he was previously responsible for the editorial quality and production of Fleet Owner magazine and Brian lives in Connecticut with his wife and two kids and spends his time coaching his son’s baseball team, golfing with his daughter, and pursuing his never-ending quest to become a professional bowler. You can reach him at [email protected]