The warehouse as we know it was already changing before the arrival of the coronavirus. There are brand new challenges that need to overcome as a result of the growth of ecommerce, as the sector looks to introduce technology and practises to meet customer demand. To get a clearer idea, we look at some of the key warehouse trends for 2022 and beyond.

Mobile robots taking the place of conveyors

Conveyors have long played an established role in the movement of materials within warehouses and distribution centres. However, where they were once seen as innovative and essential, new technology is set to take their place.

Cheaper, portable plug and play mobile robots are set to replace the fixed warehouse systems that have traditionally been used. This has evolved as a result of needing more effective use of space, a box that larger conveyor belt systems are unable to tick. Smaller logistic operations are gravitating towards RaaS (Robots-as-a-Service) systems as a more efficient alternative.

Increased integration of cobots

Rather than doing the work in place of humans, a cobot is a collaborative system that works with them. They are typically put to use for tasks such as the handling of goods, picking, packing and packaging. Their increased use in the warehouse is a result of the need to reduce the time it takes to complete certain tasks.

Some businesses are also turning to cobots as an alternative to robots as they believe human labour is under less threat. Cobots are also extremely quick and easy to install and programming is straightforward.

Seeking greater resilience

The shockwaves felt by many large retailers and manufacturers in 2020 has pushed them to source from a broader pool of suppliers, which in many instances will be more localised. As a result these suppliers will have to introduce agile systems that enable them to meet the high expectations expected of large retail clients.

This will mean upgrading warehouse management systems and utilising scalable automation to create greater agility. It will also likely mean holding more stock, which also requires more warehousing. The combination of Brexit, COVID and growth of ecommerce ensures warehouse space is a major issue for this year and beyond.

Data driven warehousing

The use of data is already a key component in the modern supply chain, from monitoring goods and tracking shipments to collating customer preferences. How data could be used to create more efficient processes within facilities has long been overlooked, although that looks like it is beginning to change.

The idea of data-driven warehouses are being adopted by an increasing amount of operators, with things like warehouse labour management systems (WLM) being used to monitor metrics in real time. Platforms like these can highlight inefficiencies and identify potential technical issues before they actually take place. For businesses wanting to keep ahead of competitors and streamline costs long-term this will prove invaluable.

An increase in flexible working

Even after social distancing restrictions have been fully relaxed it’s likely that flexible, hybrid staffing models will remain the norm, such as working from home where applicable. While this particular instance relates to office-based staff, operational or technical roles could potentially be carried out remotely, especially where greater levels of automation are being introduced.

This could be things such as using video feeds to conduct remote real-time monitoring or the remote operation of complex machinery (providing reliable connectivity is in place). As well as staff as more flexible working options, it will also create more physical space within warehouse and distribution centres, instantly increasing capacity without any additional investment.

Micro-fulfilment centres

Long gone are the days when a two-day delivery felt revolutionary. If next day (or same day in some cases) isn’t an option then you are already lagging behind. Micro-fulfilment centres are increasingly taking up a more prominent role in the sector, especially for the large, centralised hubs traditionally used by warehouses.

The centres can be deployed in greater numbers and in more localised areas, making last-mile deliveries faster and more efficient. They can be either added onto existing location to create more capacity, or built as standalone operations, their compactness making them extremely cost-effective and flexible.

Flexible pick methods

Methods such as batch pick and sort will become more common in the near future as it provides a more cost effective system for quickly dealing with high volumes of small orders. Multiple shipments can be picked at the same time before being separated into individual orders, which in turn increases throughput rates as travel times inside the warehouse are reduced.

This can accommodate ecommerce or social media orders which are then able to be released in a short time frame at a low cost. When warehouses are very busy, wave picking can also be a good option where there are a large amount of pickers and various product SKUs. It ensures congestion between locations is cut down and orders are grouped into zones.

Rising importance of reverse logistics

The issue of reverse logistics will only become increasingly prominent due to the what is known as the ‘Instagram effect’. Research has shown that around a third of shoppers make impulse buys, a number which is likely to rise further as it becomes easier to buy products through social media platforms. As Instagram shops continue to extend their reach, more impulse shoppers will return their purchases, with a fifth of all online shoppers making returns expected to be from social media purchases.

Green warehousing

Not only is green warehousing a positive step towards helping the environment and in projecting a positive brand image aware of customer concerns, it can also produce great cost savings. Lighting and heating are always two of the biggest expenses and there are a number of cost effective green changes that can be implemented to cut down these bills.

Many warehouse are already well underway implementing these changes, introducing things like LED lighting, solar panels, skylights, cool-roof systems and green building materials for extensions or new builds. It’s also become common place for green practises to be built into modern warehouse design features.