Warehouse Trends Resulting from the Pandemic

Warehouses have been evolving for years and this year has been no exception. While experts might have been able to predict some of the trends that would take place in 2020, what they couldn’t predict was just how fast those trends would accelerate and impact the industry as a result of COVID-19. From changes in shopping behavior to accelerated growth in ecommerce, warehouses everywhere have been struggling to keep up. These demands have forced warehouse decision-makers to reevaluate their investment plans and expedite how they modernize operations.

Recruitment Remains a Challenge

Prior to 2020, warehouses were striving to overcome the challenge of hiring enough workers. According to Zebra’s 2024 Warehousing Vision Study, labor recruitment and worker productivity were top challenges for 60% of warehouse operators. Some have been hiring aggressively to meet the demands of the rapid in growth e-commerce, bringing down the unemployment rate. This growth may set the stage for more labor constraints in 2021. While hiring skilled workers will remain a priority in 2021, additional labor will not be enough by itself to overcome the needs of warehouses right now. Warehouse leaders are also looking at other ways to improve productivity and meet increasing demands and one of those ways is investing in new technologies.

How Technology Is Helping Address COVID-19 Challenges

Optimizing workflows and improving productivity goes beyond simply increasing the number of workers. Warehouses also need to provide their employees with the tools and technology they need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. This technology transformation journey can be split into five stages and has been dramatically impacted as a result of the pandemic, accelerating digital transformation across every sector.

Stage one of this transformation involves the scanning of goods and how warehouses are recording their assets. Inventory management has never been more critical than now, with products such as paper goods and bottled water flying off shelves. Making sure warehouses have the right devices to scan inventory as it’s coming into their facilities and leaving is a crucial step in managing new demands.

Stage two evaluates how warehouses can enhance their operations and integrate new technologies with their warehouse management system (WMS). Some of the most popular technologies in this stage include voice-directed picking and heads-up device displays, both of which augment the human worker, making it easier for them to do their jobs. These solutions are also helping warehouses address some of their labor shortage needs as equipping mobile workers with the right technology can dramatically reduce the time needed to complete a task.

Next, the third stage requires ensuring sensors are built into the warehouse’s infrastructure. Using RFID tags can help warehouses effectively automate the scanning process and improve the level of accuracy and efficiency of the assets being scanned. In the fourth stage, we see the introduction of intelligent automation—specifically robots and cobots—to augment human workers. Cobots can work alongside human associates in the warehouse, taking some of the more manual tasks that humans traditionally had to do, leaving them more time to focus on high-skilled tasks. The goal of this stage is responding to best next move guidance and decision making, which is a crucial component of managing warehouse operations, especially during the pandemic.

The final stage is the most advanced for warehouse operations and integrates intelligent automation with data analytics to help predict and adapt to daily workflows and performance.

Looking Ahead

The demands that shaped the industry in 2020 will continue in 2021, leaving warehouses to evaluate how they will keep pace with consumer and commercial demands and expectations. The strategic adoption of new warehouse technologies will help decision makers continue to rebuild after the pandemic and optimize their operations for years to come.

To learn more about the types of technologies helping warehouse operators keep up with growing demands and changing consumer expectations, click here.

Mark Wheeler is the Director of Supply Chain Solutions at Zebra Technologies, where he is responsible for Zebra’s warehouse and supply chain solutions global strategy. He collaborates closely with customers’ supply chain operations teams, solution partners, and Zebra’s product development teams to align emerging technology solutions with customer needs. Mr. Wheeler has held numerous positions in supply chain execution throughout his 30-year career, including strategic consulting, automated warehouse design and build and complex systems integration. He holds a Bachelor of Science (BS) in mechanical engineering from Carnegie-Mellon University.

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