In future warehouses, workforce augmentation is key

Warehouses have played an important role in human invention and commerce development for a long time. Today, the rise of e-commerce has led to rapid changes in the industry, with a shift in consumer shopping behaviour in recent years from brick-and-mortar to omnichannel retail. This evolution has left warehouses striving to match the pace of changing shopping patterns. In the current warehousing landscape, speed is not just desired; it is a necessity. Moreover, the precision in warehouse operations is critical to ensuring efficiency, accuracy, and the timely delivery of goods.

Warehouse workers, in the pursuit of fulfilment, often are the most impacted. The immense pressure to deliver amidst a time crunch has raised concerns among some operators that workers’ tolerance for increasing demands could diminish, potentially leading them to seek employment elsewhere, especially if their well-being is perceived as a low priority. However, data from Zebra’s 2022 Global Warehousing Vision Study suggests otherwise, with almost 60% of warehouse associates reporting that employers are improving work conditions by adopting technologies to ease their tasks.

As the warehousing sector grapples with persistent labour challenges, the spotlight is now on human-centred automation. Warehousing pioneers are leaning toward automation not as a replacement, but as a strategic augmentation to boost human potential. The study also found that around 70% of warehouse decision-makers in Asia-Pacific (APAC) are already automating or planning to automate workflows by 2024 to better support warehouse associates and redirect them toward more customer-centric and high-value tasks.

Automation, augmentation and labour planning

The study also shows a strong consensus among associates (86%) and decision-makers (88%) that the future of warehousing will embrace advanced technology. This includes the incorporation of robotics, state-of-the-art warehousing technology, and other innovative devices. While these advancements are crucial for increasing operational efficiency, they also play a significant role in attracting and retaining top talent in the industry.

Warehouse leaders are thus reassessing their operations, actively investing in worker enablement and operational improvements to extend front-line workers’ capabilities. For instance, there is an increasing focus on wearables and rugged tablets that can run augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications for real-time task guidance. Mobile printers are also becoming more prevalent as operators push to minimise walking and fulfil orders more quickly, along with mobile dimensioning software for automating parcel and carton measurements.

Collaborative robots are also gaining prominence as a valuable solution. Warehouse associates say they are no longer hesitant to welcome autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) into their workspaces. In the 2022 study, nearly eight in 10 say walking fewer miles per day would make their jobs more enjoyable, even if they had to pick or handle more items. Many now strongly believe AMRs could make warehouse jobs less stressful.

Overall, sentiments toward automation are positive. Over half of warehouse decision-makers (58%) in APAC believe automation increases worker efficiency and productivity by reducing manual picking, order errors and cycle time, while eight in 10 warehouse associates agree that using more technology and automation helps them meet or exceed productivity goals.

Amplifying the strengths of associates

In addition to productivity benefits, around eight in 10 warehouse associates surveyed in APAC also feel more valued when their employers equip them with technology and automation tools to assist in their work. Similarly, 84% of warehouse decision-makers in APAC say adding warehouse technologies, including devices and robotics, attract and retain employees – which is extremely important during labour shortages. More than half of the surveyed decision-makers plan to implement machine learning (57%) and predictive analytics (63%) software solutions in their facilities by 2028.

Radio frequency identification (RFID) technology is no stranger to the warehouse; RFID systems can automatically read thousands of tagged items and provide highly accurate information about the location of an item. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of RFID technology, which has become a problem-solving tool for front-line workers in warehouses and other industries. Over the next five years, a majority of warehouse decision-makers plan to invest more in RFID solutions and industrial automation systems that enable greater visibility, real-time guidance, and data-driven performance. The aim is to improve worker well-being and overall market competitiveness, should the need to hire more workers arise.

Building tomorrow’s connected warehouse

It is clear that technological advancements will make the warehouse environment more attractive to workers, even in challenging market conditions. In the face of prevailing global uncertainties, warehouse leaders are channelling their energies toward pioneering a connected and agile future.

Balancing human expertise with automation is now the cornerstone of data-driven environments designed to navigate unforeseen events and retain efficiency across the supply chain. The key to creating the warehouse of the future is to foster agility, curtail inefficiencies, and arm employees with tools for optimal performance. The future stability of the workforce and ability to meet customer expectations depends on the actions taken today.