The future of warehousing and the supply chain execution industry has faced greater scrutiny than ever before in light of the global pandemic, rising consumer requirements and an increasingly strained labor market. As a result, global organizations are disrupting their status quo and investing in forward thinking capabilities that can meet the rising needs of tomorrow’s supply chain.

To delve further into how companies are evolving to meet the future needs of autonomous warehousing two industry experts recently spoke on this topic to Journal of Commerce’s Eric Johnson during a LinkedIn Live session: Fab Brasca, Blue Yonder GVP of Global Solutions, and Shankar Shanmugasundaram, Blue Yonder VP of Products. Below is an excerpt of the conversation.


Eric: Let’s start by understanding omni-commerce. Fab, can you give us a big picture of what omni-commerce is as a whole and are organizations ready to support this? 

Fab: Organizations have been shifting their supply chains to focus more on the individual consumer. It is more than just a retail problem. More and more manufacturers have a direct to consumer channel. COVID-19 is forcing omni-commerce to come to the forefront because customers are not going out due to lock downs or store closures. COVID-19 in a way has been changing the paradigm; forcing and accelerating the need to adopt new technology and going away from moving large volumes. It is now all about speed, agility, and getting closer to the customer in smaller/more resilient locations; it’s a big change. Some organizations have been ahead of the curve, others have not. Those that are not are having to rethink and reshape their supply chains.  

Eric: Physical facilities are essentially becoming de facto warehousing spaces and micro fulfillment centers. Even traditional warehouse spaces are where technology is coming to bear right now. Shankar, can you talk to us about how you see solutions evolving to meet those needs?

Shankar: There is a growing need to automate things and not just within the four walls of the warehouse but outside as well.  

If the window of time for taking a product to the customer changes from 10 days to 5 days to 3 days or even to 1 day, that needs to be automated. From a people perspective, there are complex manual decisions that are being made by day planners and supervisors but those need to become automated through software that is able to make smarter and faster decisions. From a process perspective, travel and picking are the most cumbersome and time intensive processes. Around 50% of the process is done in warehouses and 70% of the picking process relates to travel.

In addition, tools and equipment, which have a software and hardware aspect, need to also be automated. The right solution is one that looks at autonomous warehousing from a holistic people processing and equipment perspective.

Innovating Automation

Eric: From my reporting, solutions need to be have the adaptability to plug into existing capabilities, as well as ones that have not even been invented yet. What kind of new/innovative technologies are you seeing being leveraged by the market, Shankar? 

Shankar: From asoftware perspective, as more equipment came in that could do the sorting, the next stack of warehouse management systems was the warehouse control systems. They both operated on an integration model. The solution for e-commerce needs to be more real time, very responsive, and have a unit-based level of interaction for better optimization. Delivering this in a cloud-based deployment model is where the industry is moving because it allows you to innovate and provide these advancements in a very seamless manner.

On the hardware side, the initial automation started off with moving the product around the warehouse. Now processing focuses more on ASR systems that store a lot of items in a high-density manner. ASR systems can pick items in a very real-time manner – a focal emerging automation solution. With COVID-19 there is a need for lower human touch operations, and robots are playing a big role there. Moving products within the four walls, AMR is a solution we are seeing gain a lot of momentum.  

Blue Yonder’s Take on Solving the Challenges

Eric: The ability to shrink the footprint needed to fulfill the same amount of volume is essential as we move to micro-fulfillment centers in dense/urban areas where real estate is expensive. Fab, can you talk about how Blue Yonder is solving some of these problems?

Fab: I’ve been a believer that supply chain silos need to be broken down. In order to truly become more resilient and fluid, supply chains have to operate in a similar way to how we operate the apps on our phone; very open, use-case driven, seamless connections, and holistic.

We have been working with our customers on how they operate in an end-to-end, use-case perspective. You are not solving just a feature function kind of question or filling a gap from a capability perspective, it is about: ‘How am I providing real-time visibility to my end consumer?’ and ‘Am I able to promise them the goods they are looking for?’ All those things need to be interlinked and that is how we are engaging with our customers. There are two ways to innovate: you can go in your back room and come up with some great ideas and hope the market buys into them, or you can work collaboratively with those that really need to consume them. We really focus on the latter and it makes things exciting from an engagement perspective.

Looking to the Future

Eric: Any last thoughts on the future of automation?

Fab: Challenges tend to breed innovation. We are all going through a difficult time with unusual circumstances but that is why we are seeing some of the most dramatic innovations. As we come out of this, it will not revert back to what it was, a lot of these are the new normal. The companies who take advantage of that will leapfrog and have sustainable success.

Shankar: There is a very wide range of tools in the toolkits with over 700 automation systems available. It is very exciting to be in this industry, but also very important to focus on helping our customers and make and impact.

Tune weekly to Blue Yonder’s LinkedIn Live sessions on Tuesdays at 4 p.m. ET and Thursdays at 12 p.m. ET.