Industrial Automation

How Smart Warehouses Can Automate and Improve Operations

Mohammed Rubaye and Sam Veng
Labor, order accuracy, turnaround time and traceability: Find out how smart warehouses can overcome these operational challenges.  



As Industry 4.0 becomes more woven into the practice of storing products and raw materials, a new term is emerging to describe it: Warehouse 4.0.


Just as Industry 4.0 refers to using technology to enhance operational processes in industrial environments, Warehouse 4.0 refers to smart storage facilities that incorporate technology, automation and data to optimize production and labor, reduce costs and create a competitive advantage.


It’s clear that material handling is moving in this direction. Investment in warehouse automation is surging, says a 2023 report from Scala Consulting. Among surveyed manufacturing, retail and third-party logistics companies, 42% plan to allocate automation funds equal to or exceeding their annual warehousing expenditures in the next five years.


But creating these smart environments isn’t as simple as just buying and deploying all the latest technology.


Smart Warehouses Rely on Data

Most warehouses have already begun their initial ventures into automation, rolling out disparate pieces of technology here and there to accommodate changing needs and trends: a boom conveyor in receiving, a palletizer in packing, a sorter in picking, etc.


These systems, which are designed to solve specific problems, are primarily standalone systems, with their own PLCs and cabinets. Typically, they all speak their own language (they use different protocols). As a result, they can’t “talk” to each other, and they may not be able to talk to the warehouse management system, either (or, if they do, the data they share is very basic).


Although these devices aren’t connected to each other or the network, most are capable of generating the data that smart warehouses need. The problem involves harvesting that data and moving it to the right place so the people who need it have access to it.


On the surface, continuing to operate with disparate warehouse systems may not seem so bad. But fragmented systems mean fragmented data. When information can’t be brought together, warehouses miss out on opportunities to do things like:

  • Gain a comprehensive view of operations
  • Implement predictive maintenance
  • Boost production efficiency
  • Identify opportunities for cost savings


4 Operational Challenges Solved by Warehouse 4.0 Initiatives

Warehouse 4.0 initiatives can help material-handling facilities cost-effectively address some of their biggest challenges and problem areas.


1. Human Productivity and Turnover

Unlike workers, who aren’t always predictable (employees find new jobs, call in sick, make mistakes, etc.), automation doesn’t waver. You don’t have to worry about it being late, miscommunicating or getting hurt.


Of course, this isn’t to say that human capital isn’t necessary in warehouses—it is. But warehouse automation can bridge the widening gap between available skilled workers and accelerated operations.


For example, 61% of surveyed supply chain leaders in a Value-Driven Warehouse Automation report from Accenture say the top driver of warehouse automation investments is labor availability.


2. Turnaround Time

For many warehouses, turnaround time is one of the top measures of success. An efficient warehouse is one that gets materials out the door as quickly as possible, with a short length of time between order placement and departure.


The criticality of turnaround time can sometimes depend on the types of organizations the warehouses are shipping to—for example, pharmaceutical companies and healthcare facilities have very little wiggle room when it comes to the critical, life-saving supplies they need. In this case, a late shipment could lead to medical problems for patients and loss of business for the warehouse.


Automation can help make sure that products move through the warehouse as quickly and efficiently as possible, without hangups or delays.


3. Order Accuracy

Order accuracy is about accuracy within every stage of the fulfillment and delivery process: receiving, picking, packing, labeling, shipping, delivery.


It’s just as important as—if not more important than—turnaround time. What’s the point of shipping materials out the door quickly if you’re sending the wrong items? High levels of order accuracy positively impact customer satisfaction and operational efficiency (fewer returns to process, etc.).


As consumer demands change, however, order accuracy becomes more challenging. There are more product varieties and customization opportunities to manage, and even special preferences for things like gift wrapping or special packaging. These all deviate from traditional fulfillment processes that have likely been in place for years.


A smart warehouse can help remove the burden of order accuracy from human workers by making sure the right products are received, picked, packed, labeled, shipped and delivered.


4. Traceability and Tracking

Companies like FedEx and Amazon set the stage for traceability, giving consumers a way to track the evolution of their package from dock to doorstep.


In some industries, traceability is so important that it’s regulated by the government. Consider pharmaceuticals as an example once again.


Regulations like the Drug Supply Chain Security Act require pharmaceutical companies to track products from inception at the manufacturing side until delivery to the end-user.


To do this, a serial number must be created for each package in the manufacturing plant. These products are often received in bulk on a pallet, which makes it cumbersome to track products individually.


Technology can enable automated traceability and tracking, which are now critical in the material-handling process.


How Smart Warehouses Could Work

Now that we’ve covered the benefits, let’s talk about how smart warehouses actually help you get the job done. In a smart warehouse or distribution center, operations may look like this:

  • A truck or trailer approaches the smart warehouse for inbounding.
  • Through smart devices and data, the warehouse already knows exactly what’s on the truck.
  • Because you know what’s on the truck, the yard workers know which dock to direct it to for unloading.
  • An AMR (automated mobile robot), AGV (automated guided vehicle) or telescopic conveyor extracts the materials from the truck or trailer, with no human intervention required.
  • As the material enters the facility, smart devices “know” the product is leaving the trailer and entering the warehouse for receiving.
  • Products are automatically routed to the right storage system via barcode information, eliminating the opportunity for error. Through the warehouse management system, operators can see which rack and slot is being used to store those products.
  • As orders come in, AMRs, AGVs and automated conveyance systems know exactly where products are located, accurately pulling them and moving them to the right location near outbound shipping docks.
  • Materials are packaged and sealed, and an automated label with the correct address and tracking information is generated and applied so the recipient always knows its status.
  • The product is automatically loaded into a trailer for delivery.

Because these processes run with minimal human intervention, concerns about labor productivity and turnover are minimized.


As products move throughout the warehouse, there are no manual data entry tasks, inefficient picking methods, unorganized inventory practices or congested travel paths that can delay their progress, which optimizes turnaround time.


Order accuracy is improved since pickers aren’t rushed to move faster and mistakes aren’t made during packing and shipping.


Finally, traceability is enabled for each package and its contents, with a smart label that’s automatically created and placed on the outside.


Meanwhile, operators have complete visibility into processes and workflows, as well as machine performance and maintenance requirements. If a problem or bottleneck occurs, alerts are sent to the right people so they can investigate and take any necessary action steps.


Start Your Smart Warehouse Journey

Belden has the expertise to help you create a resilient foundation for smart warehousing.


We can work together to help you connect your assets and ingest the data you need to gain visibility into operations—no matter which systems and equipment are in place, or which protocols they rely on—and move it to where it’s needed most.


With the right foundation in place, your warehouse will be able to leverage automation, intelligence and unmanned systems, all driven by data that enables proactive and predictive decision-making to drive operations and reduce costs.




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