In this article, we show you the biggest warehouse automation trends in 2021 that could change your warehouse operations.
For each of the trends, you’ll learn:
- What it is and how it works
- The benefits of implementing it
- Companies that offer it
Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
- What is Warehouse Automation?
- What are the Benefits of Warehouse Automation?
- 11 Warehouse Automation Technology Trends
- Warehouse Management Systems
- Collaborative Robots
- Automated Guided Vehicles & Autonomous Mobile Robots
- Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems
- Predictive Maintenance
- Fleet Management Systems
- Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light Systems
- Voice Picking
- Automated Sortation Systems
- Industrial Internet of Things
Warehouse automation is the process of replacing repetitive tasks with automated systems.
The goal of warehouse automation systems is to eliminate labor-intensive and time-consuming duties.
Doing so, in turn, frees workers up to focus on more value-added tasks, like quality control.
Overall, there are two types of warehouse automation:
- Digital automation
- Physical automation
Digital automation relies on software and electronics to reduce manual processes and improve the focus on customers and vendors.
A warehouse management system (WMS) is an example of digital automation software.
These systems can replace manual inventory tracking while providing more information to customers regarding their order status, thereby improving customer service.
On the other hand, physical automation refers to the use of warehouse automation equipment to reduce employee labor.
An example of physical automation is the use of automated guided vehicles (AGVs).
These machines can transfer goods within a warehouse without the physical effort of a human employee.
The trends that we cover below include a mix of both digital and physical automation.
Every warehouse manager knows that warehouses are expensive to operate.
According to a 2018 report from the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics, a typical warehouse costs more than $3.7 million in labor expenses annually.
And this total doesn’t even include other expenses like health insurance, overtime, unemployment insurance, and so on.
Ultimately, that’s the key benefit of warehouse automation: Lowering your operating expenses.
You may be wondering: How does automation impact warehouse efficiency?
The answer is that by adopting automated systems, warehouses can:
- Reduce human error
- Minimize labor
- Enhance material handling coordination
- Improve workplace safety
- Boost inventory control
- Improve customer service
Each of these benefits will help improve efficiency and productivity while also cutting costs.
We’ll cover more of the benefits associated with each particular automation trend below.
Warehouse management systems (WMS) are software applications designed to help with day-to-day warehouse operations.
These systems allow you to control, monitor, and optimize the key functions of your warehouse.
- Tracking inventory
- Directing picking, packing, and shipping activities
- And even coordinating material handling equipment
The main purpose of these systems is to ensure that warehouse materials move in the most cost-effective and efficient way from the time they enter the warehouse until they leave.
Some of the benefits of using warehouse management systems include:
- Lower labor costs. A WMS can identify the best workers for the most important tasks. It can even generate schedules automatically to reduce labor allocation guesswork
- Improved inventory management. Warehouse management systems can track inventory in real-time. This helps avoid backorders and other supply issues
- Better use of warehousing space. These systems can help reduce wasted space by dictating the best places to store inventory
The follow vendors sell warehouse management systems, either as comprehensive modules or standalone products:
Collaborative robots - or “cobots” for short - are robots designed to work side-by-side with human workers.
The purpose of using cobots is to reduce errors, increase operating speeds and efficiency, and free up time for other tasks.
In fact, a study by Darex, a drill and knife sharpener manufacturer found that cobots increase efficiency by 30%!
Cobots can be used in many warehouse operations, including packing, picking, palletizing, and inspecting.
Some of the major vendors for cobots include:
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are self-guided vehicles designed to move across your entire warehouse with an onboard operator.
Unlike AGVs, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are designed to move automatically without an onboard operator.
They’re able to do this through sensors that interpret and understand their environment.
Overall, the purpose of using these machines is to reduce repetitive actions, like moving cargo from one place to another.
This frees up workers to handle other, more skilled tasks.
Other benefits of using AGVs and AMRs include:
- Increased productivity and efficiency. They set the pace for employees and also keep associates on-task
- Reduced labor. By taking care of navigation, these machines can reduce the amount of labor involved with handling materials
- Less human error. Since they guide workers through each task, there’s better accuracy and fewer losses when handling materials
- Better scalability. You can start with a few units and add as your operation and needs change
- Improved safety. Because of their in-built sensors and cameras, AGVs and AMRs can interpret their environment to avoid collisions
AVG and AMR manufacturers include:
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) store and retrieve cargo in specific locations within a warehouse.
These systems are designed to follow established routes and get materials automatically.
As a result, they can eliminate the need for human workers to perform these tasks.
AS/RS systems can come in many different configurations, depending on the nature of a warehouse’s operations.
For example, they may consist of cranes, shuttles, vertical lift modules (VLMs), or carousels, among many others.
Overall, AS/RS technology has various benefits including:
- Lower labor costs. Since AS/RS systems take the manual labor out of picking and placing materials, there’s less need for human labor
- Improved picking accuracy. By eliminating error-prone manual picking processes, AS/RS systems greatly improve accuracy
- Maximized floor and vertical space. AS/RS systems offer high storage density. This is done by using compact storage, eliminating wasted aisle spaces, and taking advantage of vertical space
The major companies that manufacture AS/AR systems include:
Ever heard of wearable technology?
Some examples include augmented reality smart glasses, finger-trigger gloves, and GPS-tracking bracelets.
Each is embedded with smart sensors and designed to be worn by warehouse operators.
The devices are connected to the web and provide information to guide users on speeding up operations.
For example, they can show you how to stock, receive, navigate, ship, and even how to lift goods - all without taking your eyes off your work.
Other benefits associated with wearables include:
- Less distracted workers. Wearables eliminate the need for cumbersome paperwork or electronics, freeing workers to focus on picking tasks
- Better efficiency. Wearables help reduce the number of “touchpoints” needed to complete tasks, allowing workers to do more in less time
- Lower costs. Because workers can do more in less time, managers can reallocate labor to other, more critical areas to maximize their labor costs
The major manufacturers of wearables are:
Most people are familiar with reactive maintenance.
This is when repairs are done only when equipment has broken down.
Conversely, predictive maintenance refers to the monitoring of equipment to detect possible defects before they result in a failure.
These systems can then take the necessary prevention measures by automatically scheduling corrective maintenance.
A predictive maintenance software system connects and analyzes data using sensors like acoustic monitoring, infrared thermography, and vibration analysis.
They can also integrate with business systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP) software and industrial controls.
Overall, predictive maintenance has many benefits for warehouses, including:
- Less downtime. Predictive maintenance will alert managers to equipment issues before they lead to downtime. In fact, a predictive maintenance system can reduce failures by up to 90%!
- Improved workplace safety. Equipment failures can cause serious safety issues. By preventing them in the first place, workers are better safeguarded
- Increased equipment longevity. Equipment problems can balloon in severity if not corrected quickly. Since predictive maintenance alerts managers early, they can take care of those issues which can extend their equipment’s lifespan
The major providers of predictive maintenance services include:
Fleet management refers to the monitoring and management of an organization’s vehicles.
The goal of fleet management is to ensure maximum productivity and efficiency while also lowering operational costs.
It is estimated that 75% of fleet managers depend on fleet management software and vehicle telematics to run their daily operations.
These systems gather and analyze data from devices mounted on each vehicle, such as speed, engine run time, and fuel use.
This data can then be used to find ways to improve operations and reduce costs.
For warehouses, in particular, fleet management systems are often used to track forklifts.
And doing so can be beneficial in multiple ways:
- Tracking activity. Fleet management systems come with GPS locators. These let you track the location of your forklifts and operators easily within a single or multiple warehouses. This can greatly boost your productivity and minimize errors
- Protecting your equipment. Fleet management systems have security alerts that provide real-time updates concerning each forklift. You can use the updates to send messages to your operators for instant follow up
- Optimizing your workflow. With these systems in place, you can track the efficiency of your routes and find ways to improve them
- Managing maintenance. By tracking hours of usage, managers can get a handle on when maintenance services are due
Pick-to-light systems use light devices that direct workers on where to pull order items from storage.
First, the worker simply scans a barcode assigned to an order.
Then, lights mounted on racking indicate which items to choose to fulfill the order.
The idea is to eliminate the need for workers to manually view pick tickets, which can result in more errors and less efficiency.
On the other hand, put-to-light systems are simply the opposite of pick-to-light systems.
First, workers scan an order barcode.
Then, rack-mounted lights indicate where the material should be placed in storage.
The benefits of pick-to-light and put-to-light systems include:
- Increased productivity. It's estimated that using pick-to-light systems can increase productivity by 30 to 50%
- Improved picking accuracy. Since workers don’t have to manually determine the location to pick or place items, they’re less likely to make mistakes
- Reduced training costs. These systems are simple and intuitive. Training can take as little as 30 to 45 minutes
You can obtain pick-to-light and put-to-light systems from vendors such as:
Voice picking is a method for using verbal commands to aid warehouse workers in fulfilling orders.
Typically, voice picking systems are integrated with a warehouse management system or enterprise resource planning software.
Once an order comes in, the voice picking system will determine the requirements of the order.
Then, they’ll verbally convey the information to workers, who receive the commands from a headset.
The worker is then directed to the location of the item to pick and told the quantity to pick.
Workers can also converse with the system to confirm locations and order quantities.
By adding a voice picking system to your warehouse, you can enjoy many benefits including:
- Improved picking accuracy. Since voice picking takes much of the manual labor out of picking, order accuracy will be improved
- Better productivity. Workers can focus solely on picking instead of juggling paperwork and various electronic devices
- Improved safety. Since it’s hands-free, workers will be less distracted and thus less likely to cause or be involved in accidents
Automated sortation is a way of removing the manual labor element of identifying materials on a conveyor system and diverting them to specific locations in your warehouse.
These automated systems use a variety of technologies to do this, including barcode scanners and sensors.
Automated sortation systems can be of two types, generally:
- Case sorters, which handle whole totes
- Unit sorters, which handle individual items
Under these two categories, many sortation systems exist which can tilt, pivot, push or drop items on a conveyor to divert them where they need to go.
The benefits of using automated sortation in your warehouse include:
- Less reliance on labor. Automating sortation can be a way to cope with increasingly small labor pools
- Faster processing. These systems can work faster and longer than humans can, which improves productivity and efficiency
- Better order accuracy. Taking the manual guesswork out of sorting will reduce errors and ultimately result in happier customers
Some reliable vendors of these systems include:
The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is the network of connected devices in an industrial setting.
This can include many of the technologies we’ve covered, like warehouse management systems, predictive maintenance software, and automated guided vehicles.
This interconnected “web” allows for interacting, sharing information, and ultimately providing ways to improve coordination and efficiency.
The benefits of outfitting your warehouse with the Industrial Internet of Things include:
- Better efficiency and productivity. IIoT can help warehouses find gaps in operations that impair efficient operations
- Lower costs. Better communication between equipment and software can help reduce issues like unplanned downtime and inefficient use of equipment
- Better decision-making. By providing more data, the IIoT can help warehouse managers make more informed decisions about where to allocate limited resources
You can get the IIoT in your warehouse from:
There you have it: 11 warehouse automation trends in 2021.
Is there anything we’ve missed?
Or do you have further questions you’d like us to answer?
Either way, let us know in the comments below!