A woman in a high visibility jacket working in a warehouse full of boxes

Winning customers from the warehouse

The technologies helping retailers deliver faster and more efficiently.

One of the key questions many customers ask when shopping online is "how soon can I get it?". The seller that can deliver the quickest, at the right price, will often win the business.

COVID-19 has only intensified this battle, as the boom in online shopping, and restrictions preventing in-person browsing, mean many more people are relying solely on purchases made over the internet being delivered to the door.

As a result, retailers continue to face a massive logistical challenge: how to shorten the wait between the customer clicking and delivery or collection of the purchase, while also keeping the process financially efficient.

Big competitive advantages are available to those who do this well. A 2019 survey by the International Council of Shopping Centres found that speed of delivery was the most important aspect of online customer service, with 55% of respondents picking it as their biggest consideration.

So what technology are retailers deploying in the warehouse to make the process as quick and efficient as possible?

How are self-driving vehicles being used in logistics?

Automation is at the forefront of efficiency and productivity gains across almost every sector of industry and business, and logistics is no exception.

When it comes to self-driving vehicles, it is the road-going kind that most capture people’s imagination, even though there are still many barriers to clear before fully autonomous cars and lorries can operate in public.

However, self-driving vehicles are already a reality in logistics supply chains and their popularity is growing thanks to the efficiency benefits they can bring to warehouse operations. Their ability to operate round the clock, and the precision with which they operate mean they can unlock significant time and energy savings compared with human drivers.

These vehicles come in many shapes and sizes, from more traditional fork-lift based units to smaller vehicles designed to carry parcels rather than pallets.

The Auto Pallet Mover developed by Jungheinrich is an example of a self-driving fork-lift that uses laser navigation technology to guide itself though any warehouse environment, picking up and dropping off goods. The vehicles feature a host of safety features that allow them to operate alongside manual vehicles and human workers, giving them great flexibility.

A good example from the smaller end of the scale is KNAPP’s Open Shuttle autonomous mobile robots (AMR) system. The free-moving shuttles use advanced contour-detection video technology to navigate spaces without the need for any optical or physical aids, and they can be customised to carry a wide range of different types of loads.

While it may still sound futuristic, the open shuttle system was first launched in 2016 and since then it has proven itself in a wide range of real-world warehouse and logistics environments, continuously developing to become more reliable and more efficient.

But the rise of robotics in logistics doesn’t mean the process doesn’t also rely heavily on people – and that’s set to be the case for many years to come.

What’s the difference between a robot and a co-bot?

The nature of retail logistics, where packages come in many different shapes and sizes, mean full automation is a bigger challenge than in many industrial applications, where robots only need to perform very repetitive actions.

A co-bot, or collaborative robot, works alongside a human operator, picking up goods from around a warehouse and transporting them to a workstation to pick and sort.

This allows humans and robots to both play to their strengths, with the automated machines taking on the heavy-lifting and simpler processes while a person carries out the tasks that are more complex in terms of the motor skills and dexterity needed.

As well as saving warehouse workers from long walks around large storage facilities, co-bots can also improve the safety of logistics operations by keeping people away from the large moving parts of the operation.

So there are many more advanced tools available to logistics managers when it comes to operations on the ground, but how is tech helping to co-ordinate these increasingly automated and intricate logistics systems?

AI and process automation

As distribution processes become faster moving and more complex, co-ordinating the many thousands of moving parts involved increasingly demands assistance from automated technology.

Determining the most efficient route for any given parcel to take as it makes its multi-stage journey from manufacturing facility to customer is a hugely complex operation, and it is increasingly being achieved by data modelling and artificial intelligence platforms that can adapt to changing conditions in real time.

At the level of the individual purchase, this might mean minimised delays and faster delivery, but an equally big win for logistics businesses and retailers is the effect this has at a company-wide scale.

By cutting the distance that every parcel – and therefore every vehicle – travels companies can make significant energy and cost savings, reducing their financial overheads and contributing to hitting environmental targets.

The vital importance of clear labelling

However smart the planning behind a process might be, it is only by ensuring that it is implemented in practice that any gains can be made, and this is where reliable labelling comes into play.

One thing that almost every logistics operation depends on is clear labelling of the individual items in transit and storage. Whether these labels are human-readable or based on bar or QR codes, it’s critical that labels are legible and robust enough to stay that way throughout their journey.

The advent of mobile, on-person printers that allow staff to create and scan labels as they move around the warehouse add flexibility to ways of working and help to minimise stock movement, without compromising on print quality.

Ensuring that workflows are robust and efficient from a digital perspective is equally important, so the ability to integrate printers seamlessly with the stock management system is essential.

Find out more about the comprehensive range of mobile printers we’ve designed that are built to meet the demands of retail logistics.

The future of retail demands more efficient logistics

One of the benefits that physical stores have over online retail is greater logistical efficiency. Fundamentally, stores are warehouses, and the shoppers navigating them with baskets or trolleys are carrying out one of the most complex parts of the fulfilment operation themselves – picking individual items, putting them together, and taking them to the right address.

When retailers themselves take on this operation – as is the case with online shopping – it will always add complexity to the process, which is why maximising efficiency is crucial.

As the warehousing and logistics process comes to form part of most shoppers’ buying experience, it has come to be a key differentiator between retail brands.

Those that are able to promise rapid turnaround times for deliveries and collections, and to stick to them every time, will have a significant advantage over the competition.

Find out more about retail warehouse print and scanning solutions from Brother.

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