Warehouse Operations: It’s Time to Level Up

Ryan Spurr

Every manufacturer deals with workforce shortages, turnover, training, and the constant need to improve productivity. And it’s not just a focus in the factory. While the challenges are different, warehouse teams strive to retain workers, ramp up new hires, and drive productivity to keep up with worker shortages and increased demand. 

Where do you turn when your warehouse is understaffed? How do you keep up with customer demand and growth objectives? How do you eke out a bit more productivity from the existing warehouse team? 

There has to be a better way forward… and there is. What if I said you could speed up warehouse employee training from days to 25 minutes or improve picking accuracy to 99%? Would that be enough reason to change the process and invest in new warehouse technology? 

Ditch the Paper—and Go Digital

If you’re using a paper picking process—stop! The truth is that many organizations still do this, and it amazes me when I see it. Manual picking processes are fraught with inefficiencies, human error, and non-value-added transactions in the warehouse or back office. Simply moving away from paper picking to leverage digital transactions in your existing ERP or WMS will improve productivity, inventory accuracy, and the timeliness of the data you, sales, and your clients depend upon when fulfilling orders. You might not be ready for the latest and greatest—and that’s fine—but it’s time to take that next maturity step to create a digital warehouse.

We Need Something Better: Upgrade Your Old Tech

While most organizations have moved on from paper-based warehouse operations, many are still utilizing a decades-old technology: scanners. Although improvements have been made in this area, using scanners means you’re still relying on less efficient processes and additional human actions. Due to the size of screens and the way most warehouses pick, teams continue to utilize pick sheets, pen and paper, and a manual process for picking and stacking. 

While this approach improves traditional paper picking, it doesn’t address the human element of picking. People are still not hands-free and continue to depend on pick sheets and institutional knowledge collected over time. 

There is also the general goal of productivity and scale. For example, if your business grows, how do you scale with your workforce? Can you make your existing workforce more productive? How do you deal with new hires? Can you take a new hire and make them productive on the same day? 

The technology must address business systems, ergonomics, actual employee usage, and the challenges of a dynamic labor market.

What Technology Upgrades Are Available?

Believe it or not, there are many options to trade up to. Each depends on your culture, workforce, and your business’s unique operations. These solutions can bring value and—in some cases—compound to bring significant productivity improvements when used together.

Forklifts are core to many warehouse operations and one of our more popular topic of customer conversations. How can you modernize forklift operations? Well, it’s pretty straightforward, but the answer largely depends on how your employees operate. Do they sit in the saddle all day? Do they get off the forklift to pick and place items on a pallet? Do you expect your employees also to take training or collaborate when not actively driving? Do you scan license plates at long distances? Understanding how you operate today and how you would like to operate in the future contributes much to which technology is recommended for forklift operations.

In reality, most manufacturers are replacing legacy forklift solutions with rugged tablets, wireless scanners, and in some cases, using a single smart scanner that provides versatility in saddle or out. Whichever device best fits your use cases, these devices also act as a platform for other job functions, including collaboration, feedback or continuous improvement, access to human resources, and training. 

Voice Picking
Voice picking utilizes a headset with a microphone and earpiece. This allows warehouse employees to interact via voice with the business systems and pick lists. The system verbally instructs employees on what to pick next, and the employee confirms pick completions verbally before proceeding to the following items. Reducing reliance on institutional knowledge and delivering a hands-free solution, voice-picking solutions can lower turnover by 15-30%, reduce new hire training by up to 50%, and even reduce safety incidents by 5-20%.

Visual Picking
Similar to voice picking, visual picking systems leverage augmented reality headsets to visually display picking instructions, quantities, and even visual queues for where picked items should be stacked or placed (this all depends on how you place picked items). One of the positive aspects of visual picking is its ability to convey multiple pieces of information simultaneously. This makes it both intuitive for new hires, improves productivity, and can reduce picking defects by ensuring products are placed in the appropriate locations. Together, these benefits can achieve a 10-35% increase in picking performance, improving the bottom line.

Automated Shipping Verification and Notification
In addition to picking and staging, another form of automation includes advanced supply chain notifications (ASNs) or order verification. This is not new and has been in use for years. It’s based on the concept of tagging finished goods with passive RFID labels. As these goods are staged on pallets and associated with customer orders, it facilitates a variety of automation steps. 

First, as a pallet passes through a check point or dock doors, it automatically compares the products against the order to ensure order accuracy. Second, all transactions that employees might typically do (inventory movements, customer order completion, back office financial transactions, etc.) can be triggered and automated. This can be a robust improvement for the shipping department and finance, which can automate invoicing processes. 

It’s also important to point out that some manufacturers may be mandated to implement such systems through contract terms with large retailers like Walmart or Amazon. In addition to compliance, these platforms can bring additional benefits, such as minimizing chargebacks. 

Automated Mobile Robots (AMRs)
The robot platforms will not pick for you but will augment your workforce in several positive ways. AMRs can improve safety, minimize routine physical activities, address workforce shortages, and transport finished goods within the warehouse or line side stock into the factory. 

AMRs also come in many shapes and sizes, a versatile solution for any organization looking to integrate mobile robots into their existing operations, whether your teams use bins, containers, pallet jacks, racks, trolleys, or totes.

Companies that have implemented AMRs in their warehouse operations have seen up to 15% reduced overtime spending, 100% improvement in picker productivity, and reduced headcount and operational supply spending by 50%.

Unburden Your Warehouse

In manufacturing, many headwinds affect the workforce, productivity, and the ability to support business growth. Warehousing has a significant role to play in the company’s performance, and with so many new and proven technologies, many paths toward improvement. With many opportunities, warehouse operations is a great place to consider investing in how employees get work done.Connection believes there is always a better way to equip your warehouse workforce and drive continuous process improvement. If you’re interested in learning more, engage with a partner who will take the time to understand your business objectives and assist in selecting the right warehouse technologies to fit your unique business situation.

Ryan Spurr is the Director of Manufacturing Strategy at Connection with 20+ years of experience in manufacturing, information technology, and portfolio leadership. He leads the Connection Manufacturing Practice, go-to-market strategy, client engagement, and advisory services focusing on operational technology (OT) and information technology that make manufacturers more digitally excellent.