Innovative Solutions to Guard Against Warehouse Disruptions and Challenges, Part 1
In a series of blog articles, the Product/Solution Marketing team explores innovative solutions to guard against supply chain disruptions. The following are insights gained from my discussion with Joe Kozenski, Blue Yonder Director of Product Management, and Mark Severns, Blue Yonder Director of Product Management, during a recent LinkedIn Live.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the important role that logistics plays in the supply chain. Our logistics colleagues work very hard to ensure production processes have the inbound materials, move the output products and materials, and deliver to end consumers to make our lives easier. Warehouse automation and robotics are presenting new opportunities to support logistics professionals – and are some of the hottest topics in supply chain execution today.
Disruptions and Opportunities
Terence: Joe and Mark, since you work with customers often, can you please share some insights on the latest logistics and warehousing trends?
Mark: The last few years have seen a variety of external macro forces impacting the warehouse. These trends are driving distribution centers (DCs) to either visit or revisit newer, innovative solutions as a means to evolve. The first, and arguably the most publicized, challenge is the continued difficulties finding and retaining staff in the face of a highly competitive labor market. Between staff who have aged out of the workforce or chose early retirement and generally high levels of turnover, warehouses are struggling to find and retain staff, even with increased wages and improved benefits. Losing those tenured employees means losing their unique expertise navigating the facility as efficiently as possible. Rebuilding that labor force and experience is expensive and time consuming. Labor is becoming more expensive and, in many cases, less experienced.
The explosive growth of e-commerce and omni-channel fulfillment is a major driver. Pre-pandemic, demands on the warehouse from online shopping was growing, but the last few years have seen a dramatic increase not only in demand, but in consumer expectations. It used to be that waiting a few days for an order was fine. That is turning into hours, or even less. Smaller order sizes, higher volume and rapid delivery expectations are creating a challenge to meet customer expectations.
A third area continuing to increase in importance is around sustainability initiatives. At the highest levels, businesses are focusing on how they can operate while being better global citizens as part of broader Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) initiatives. This includes activities such as reducing their carbon footprint. For the warehouse, this means looking for opportunities to eliminate waste, which often translates to efficiency improvements.
These three trends – the labor market, e-commerce demands and sustainability – are combining to drive a change in the technology landscape. Autonomous, mobile robots and automation are becoming more commonplace. IoT and smart devices are common, creating an infrastructure to support real-time signals between supply chain applications, and artificial intelligence (AI)/machine learning (ML) are disrupting supply chain.
Joe: To build on what Mark brought up, the major push into e-commerce with the more aggressive service level agreements (SLAs) expected by the end customer, and the struggle to find a consistent workforce leads into the bigger push for automation usage and Warehouse Execution System (WES) capabilities. The spike in commercial robotics, especially Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) is unprecedented at this time.
We are seeing hundreds of different types of investments going into this space across all industries to help onboard automation much easier with the goal of increased throughput. With the large uptick in robotics vendors entering the market, choosing the right one becomes more critical. Will the vendor of your choosing be around in 10 years, five years or even six months? This is why the push into WES capabilities is becoming more of a necessity for anyone considering not only automation, but also different work execution products like mobile-, voice-, vision-, or camera-based technology to help complete work across your DCs. The WES helps your Warehouse Management System (WMS) communicate with various equipment to help you complete tasks, in a more agnostic focused direction.
As shown through multiple advisory or consultation firms like ARC Advisory or Gartner, the WES market is growing and its importance is becoming more critical to staying operationally relevant. Where a traditional automation vendor or system integrator approach allows you to focus on a specific vendor and WMS version, a WES allows for a multiple vendor approach to drive a common WMS goal like time to value or increased output. Whether you’re using multiple AMR vendors, multiple voice or vision picking vendors, a WES helps make sure all the work is being done by the right resource at the right time and gives you the opportunity to change your decision if your operations or vendors change in the future.
Terence: All the challenging trends that are fueling the growth of SaaS-based technologies along with the evolution of robotics, creates a fascinating, positive opportunity for innovation. We have been serving our customers in the areas of resource management and robotics in addition to the broader warehouse managing. What is the latest news on our warehouse-related solutions?
Joe: There are a lot of exciting things happening at Blue Yonder around warehousing, labor management and warehouse execution. The Panasonic Connect acquisition is helping not only empower our current roadmap deliverables through additional investment, but also adding new opportunities to leverage IoT devices through various applications like labor management tracking and process controls, automatic inventory moves, yard check-in / check-out automation, and warehouse execution through mobile-, voice- and camera-based interfaces. There is a lot of beneficial and powerful capabilities that we’ve been showing at not only our Blue Yonder ICON user conferences but also via our Special Interest Groups (SIGs); both allow us to generate feedback and have conversations on the best focus for Blue Yonder’s push to add standard hardware-driven innovation that complements our existing software portfolio. With Panasonic Connect supporting new Blue Yonder initiatives, we are really looking forward to new capabilities that we can take to market that bring hardware and software together to offer a more complete set of optimized solutions.
With the push into new capabilities and devices, we are changing our approach on how cloud-native capabilities can be used to empower Blue Yonder’s WMS or even non-Blue Yonder WMS with new functionality. This was started with our already available product like Warehouse Tasking that optimizes and automatically manages delivery timelines and sequencing of your workforce to get more done with your current workforce due to interleaving opportunities and getting prioritized work done in the right order based on your SLAs. The goal of tasking is to make your wave planner or tasker more focused on the exception handling versus standard day-to-day rules.
This cloud-native approach was also initiated with our Robotics Hub offering focused on rapid onboarding of automation vendors and workflows within the WMS. We currently have nine different vendors onboarded for specific WMS workflows like GTP, cobot picking, put-away, inventory movement, and pack-out processes. It also looks at non-Blue Yonder WMS connectivity through API-based connectivity where we are connecting to multiple home-grown WMS’s, ERP’s and even some of our direct competitors in the WMS space. We are always looking at more vendor opportunities to put on our roadmap to help new customers find value with the solutions they are targeting.
These Warehouse Tasking and Robotics Hub solutions are already used by over 30 unique customer customers across multiple sites, industries and locales, and are the baseline and critical components for a new Luminate Warehouse Execution System (LWES) solution. The LWES product looks at refining and improving the Warehouse Tasking and Robotics Hub capabilities under a single platform to allow for even better execution and alignment of human and machine activities, as well as getting to more capabilities around upstream order sequencing or order management and what-if analytics based on additional ML capabilities. Overall, this product line that can help save you time and effort in this competitive labor market and automation first landscape.
Mark: Clearly there is a need for technologies to better orchestrate the work of humans and the growing amount of robots as Joe illustrated. Our WES offers many quantifiable benefits to the warehouse and the organization as a whole.
Intelligently orchestrating the work flowing into the warehouse across humans and robotics ensures the right equipment in the right area is doing the correct work. This also offers the ability to eliminate any of the bottlenecks that might occur, streamlining movement of resources through the facility. With resources operating at the optimal efficiency, the warehouse is better equipped to respond to the e-commerce and delivery demands we talked about earlier.
As facilities embrace robotics, leveraging WES technology makes the onboarding of these robots much easier, particularly when dealing with multiple robotics from multiple vendors that all need to work together. These devices need to work in harmony. The faster these devices can be brought online and add value the more rapid the ROI.
Finally, we talked about sustainability a bit earlier. Robots offers an opportunity to lower a warehouse’s carbon footprint, so any technology that can encourage the use of more robots is going to have an impact. Knowing that there is a solution that can seamlessly integrate these robots into the operation should encourage more and rapid adoption. A 60% reduction in integration times with new vendor flows can be achieved. In subsequent deployments, improvements are up to 90%.
In Part 2, we will cover customer examples and the future state of WES.
More Insights to Come
In subsequent blog posts in this series, we will explore innovations in micro-fulfillment, omni-channel commerce and fulfillment, control tower, supply chain planning, and Luminate Platform!