Feb 03 2021

Organizations Master Their Supply Chains and Delight Customers with Warehouse Tech

Digital transformation has arrived in the warehouse and logistics businesses.

Every day, Food Bank For New York City sends as many as 18 trucks from its warehouse in the Bronx to deliver supplies to its network of more than 800 food pantries and soup kitchens across the five boroughs. As the city’s largest hunger relief organization, the nonprofit needs to be as efficient as possible to get food to people in need. Increasingly, warehouse technology is a critical component of the organization’s operations.

This summer, the food bank invested in WT41N0 handheld devices from Zebra Technologies as well as Zebra’s ZT410 label printer. The organization is also using a browser-based mobile app and iPhone devices with add-on scanners to assist with the process of loading its trucks.

The Zebra mobile devices improve efficiency and accuracy through voice picking technology, and the label printer replaces a cumbersome process of printing paper labels and then taping them to pallets. Meanwhile, the smartphones and mobile app ensure a speedy and accurate loading process. As a result, the organization’s employees and volunteers can be more effective than ever.

“This is a better system than what we had in place before,” says Bobby Basi, application support specialist for Food Bank For New York City. “Voice picking is much faster than typing, and the process of printing labels is now quicker too. Before, our pallet tags would get lost. Now, if needed, we can reprint the pallet tag by clicking one button.”

With outcomes that can be easily measured in units moved per day or even per hour, organizations that need to store inventory in warehouses and move products efficiently to end users are under intense pressure to streamline their operations wherever possible. They’re increasingly relying on modern tech solutions to help them gain an edge.

George Lawrie, a vice president and principal analyst with Forrester, notes that e-commerce trends have given rise to demands that would have seemed completely unreasonable just a few years ago.

“It’s astonishing,” Lawrie says. “People don’t want it tomorrow — they want it right now. If you have people working in a warehouse, they need to be as productive as possible.”

Expanding Warehouse Capacity With Tech

Direct Relief, a Santa Barbara, Calif., nonprofit that delivers medicine and other supplies to people affected by poverty, emergencies or disaster, was scheduled to move its operations to a 130,000-square-foot warehouse in 2018. However, Dawn Long, senior vice president and COO, knew that the organization’s old warehouse technology and processes wouldn’t translate well to the larger facility. So, before the move, Direct Relief adopted an array of new technology, including Motorola smartphones and mobile carts equipped with HP EliteDesk Mini PCs and HP EliteDisplay monitors.

“Before, we were very traditional,” Long says. “People would have their clipboards, walk to the product, write some things down, go back to their desks and check if it was in the system. I said, ‘If we’re going to be in such a large facility, we’re going to lose so much time just walking around with clipboards.’ It was very labor-intensive, and we didn’t want to wait until we got to the new facility to introduce these new processes and technologies.”

With the new tech solutions in place, Direct Relief associates have real-time access to the organization’s warehouse management system throughout the facility. The tools also allow them to scan inbound goods in receiving, label and pack orders anywhere in the warehouse and verify the accuracy of filled orders. Voice picking technology helps to improve accuracy as well as safety, Long says, because workers no longer have to look down while they’re driving forklifts.

The tech investments helped Direct Relief to increase its shipments per year from 13,000 in 2017 to 21,000 in 2019, without adding staff. “That’s all due to improved efficiencies, process changes and technology,” Long says.

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Mobile Technology That Empowers Employees

Tony Hollis, director of technology and innovation for Saddle Creek Logistics Services, an omnichannel fulfillment company based in Lakeland, Fla., says that modern warehouse technology has become essential to providing customers with the level of service they expect.

“Supply chains are very dynamic, and consumers are used to a very high-service level,” Hollis says. “You need to simplify your processes, gain real-time inventory management and do anything you can to make operations extremely efficient. A lot of this has to do with finding technologies that are flexible, scalable and, most important, improve the cost and service experienced by our customers.”

Recently, Saddle Creek Logistics invested in several technologies from Zebra, including TC8000 touch-screen computers, rugged MC9300 mobile computers, ET50 tablets and scanners and printers. The company is using the ET50 tablets and ultrarugged DS3600 extended-range scanners as vehicle-mounted solutions that allow warehouse workers and forklift operators to quickly replenish fulfillment options and improve operational efficiency. Meanwhile, DS9908-R scanners and ZT610 industrial series printers are helping workers speed up the scanning process, verify orders and print shipping labels to quickly fulfill requests.

“It’s been huge for us,” Hollis says of the tech investment. “If you look at the technology improvements we’ve made, one of the biggest wins has been to help us and our customers scale in a market with a lot of labor challenges.”

Looking Ahead to the Warehouse of the Future

To stay competitive, Hollis says, IT and business leaders in warehouse and logistics must keep their eyes on emerging technologies in the space and look for opportunities to create new efficiencies. “There’s a tremendous amount of development in the market,” he says. “As business leaders, we’ve got to understand the value and maturity of these solutions and decide when it makes sense to deploy them.” He notes that technologies like robotics, which were previously relegated to heavy manufacturing, are beginning to make their way into the logistics space.

Robotics will continue to make inroads in the warehouse and logistics in the coming years, Lawrie predicts, but robots will be used to move products while humans will continue to do the job of sorting and packing. “What they’re trying to do is have the person stay still, and have the product come to them,” Lawrie says. “It sounds crazy, but actually, it’s crazy to have people walking around. Their hands and their eyes are what’s valuable. It’s very hard for a robot to replicate those.”

At the Food Bank For New York City, they are already planning their next tech investments. “We are planning to implement GPS tracking,” Basi says, “so we can see the exact location of truck movements and give real-time updates to the agencies we work with about when their shipments will arrive.”

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