Playing the role of supporting fulfillment across an increasing number of distribution channels, warehouses and distribution centers are increasingly being looked upon as strategic business assets rather than cost centers. In the past, a warehouse was only a storage facility for goods before they made the way through the supply chain. But the modern day warehouse must be capable of supporting B2B, brick-and-mortar, e-commerce and home delivery among many other functions.
Achieving this requires either a lot of labor & real estate or technology which helps counter high labor & land costs while also streamlining the processs to be more efficient. Most enterprises are still using slow processes like pen & paper and spread-sheets to manage inventory and track movement of products. In the age of Big Billion Day & Great Shopping Festivals, these businesses are suffering and falling behind to their competition who are quick to latch on to the latest emerging innovative practices.
In the future, inventory management won’t look anything like it does today. Technology has made it faster not only at producing the things, it is also helping bring down waste, error and unpredictability to help be better facilitated than ever in a rapidly changing world. Following are the important shifts that businesses need to be aware of to avoid becoming extinct:
- Warehouse Management Systems
With the end consumers expecting fast and personalized service, the intelligent enterprises in the supply chain are turning to Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) to accommodate such specific needs and address their internal pain points. Businesses want to collaborate various warehouse operations better, simultaneously sustaining growth in product sales.
The quantity and diversity of inventory handled in a warehouse is shifting from large-pallet orders to smaller orders with numerous SKUs at one time. So, the means of picking and loading have to correspondingly improve in order to meet the variety of requests. WMS assists in cataloging innumerable bar-coded SKUs over several warehouses.
Also, as the warehouses now are packed-full of stock and constantly managing new orders, banking on available data and technology can help it improve its service. A WMS system tracks inbound and outbound stock and can save time by tracking product availability. Additionally, a warehouse that can liaise with its counterpart can act on the unavailability and request and initiate a stock transfer.
Order management systems (OMS) are a key part of WMS and help make sure there is no duplication of efforts unnecessarily and save time. Explaining this further, take a customer who has placed two orders for shipping to a single same address. An intelligent system alerts this to pickers and packers so that both products are shipped together in one container. The OMS can also look for spikes in sales of a product that is presently under-stocked and notify the proper party to move the stock accordingly.
Thus, the WMS takes the weight from the manager’s shoulders in doing the thinking when it comes to analyzing the operations & capabilities and matching them to the customer demands while making sure the business prospers through cost & time saving and increased revenue & efficiency.
- Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light Systems
One of the straight-forward but key process is making sure order pickers and stowers reach the location of a desired product without error and on time. The business mustn’t get stuck with such repeatable tasks. Pick-by-Light and Put-by-Light are 2 such technologies that help maximize order picking productivity, boost accuracy and thus, offer a more efficient and low cost alternative to manual picking methods.
Basically, Pick-to-light and put-to-light systems enhance the process of interacting with inventory. In this system, each bin in the product racking has a light which visually guides the employee to the correct location. The bin also has an acknowledge button so that he can register the interaction with the bin and create a record.
This technology directs warehouse operators to product locations, making it easier for them to know which products to pick and how many. These systems are extremely versatile and can plan, control and analyze the vast amounts of orders picked. This helps in increased picking productivity, real-time sorting, improved accountability and lesser errors.
This technology directs operators how and where to allocate products in a warehouse for orders. These systems are highly efficient in picking from bulk stock and so most suitable for retail warehouses dealing with apparel, general merchandise, sports goods, personal care products and groceries. Advantages include Low floor space requirement, High-speed sorting and is ideal for small, consistent daily orders.
- Voice Tasking
Another emerging breakthrough trend is voice tasking for inventory handling. Traditionally, pickers and stowers rely on reading text on terminals and hand scanners. In Voice Tasking, audio instructions and feedback are provided to eliminate errors and maintain the employee’s focus on the surroundings. This is a hands-free technology which uses spoken commands for receiving, putting, picking, shipping and replenishing tasks. It is similar to RF tech and is an adaptable choice for order fulfillment.
- Increased picking productivity & accuracy
- Needs very less labour training
- Aids in real-time data analysis & transmission
- RFID will become a Common Practice
Though Bar Code Scanning is prevalent in more than three-fourths of the industry, the use of Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) will be the future as businesses need to locate individual products, components and monitor the respective quality & quantity with accuracy.
In the RFID method for managing inventory, bin locations are tagged with microchips which emit/receive radio waves. The employee carries a handheld device that emits corresponding signals which connects with the microchip to retrieve the location, quantity and any other related vital information.
In the next 2-3 years, RFID will also be used considerably to:
- Prevent under-stock and over-stock
- Ascertain Stock-out cases
- Quality Control of perishable goods
- Ensure security of inventory and prevent theft
- Warehouse Inventory Data On the Cloud
Following the footsteps of the Big enterprises, a lot of Small & Medium enterprises (SMEs) are also moving their inventory management process to cloud-based systems that offer both flexibility & scalability at affordable pricing. The cost-efficiency and operational-speed that cloud systems bring to the table ensure a healthy bottom-line for businesses.
The greatest benefit is that the on-cloud inventory management can be administered across all devices with varying screen sizes be it mobiles or tablets for uniform managing capabilities. Warehouse managers are soon becoming proficient in collecting, analyzing and taking pro-active measures in controlling the various processes in their warehouse with the help of mobile applications. Problems of labour being unskilled will be irrelevant with even the technophobics now becoming comfortable with the use of smartphone apps in their daily life.
Wearable technologies built solely for warehouse management will also become a standard in inventory management in the next five years.
- Analytics will drive Efficiency
Analytics & Inventory optimization have been in close collusion with each other since ages. Key indicators like stock cycle & Economic Order Quantity have helped managers with stock-optimization till now. However, with the explosive advent of omni & multi channel retail, the need for analytics that helps to control multiple inventory locations and SKUs is a given.
Along with cloud-based systems and ERP reports, data-analytics will help businesses to dive deeper into inventory data and extract meaningful inferences to aid decision-making. An enterprise will have access and visibility into more useful information about the efficiency of warehouse ma
nagement. These analytical insights will help automatically identify best practice improvements and thus:
- Save critical Management Time
- Aid in tracking Stock expiry period
- Help in Forecasting Demand
- Assist in Controlling Pilferage
- Real-Time Inventory Data
Finally, the inventory management trend that was considered a dream few years ago: real-time inventory data. As seen above, how analytics and connected devices can remove uncertainty from the enterprise operation — real-time inventory data takes it one notch higher.
Across all industries and through the entire supply chain, real-time data is helping businesses run leaner, cleaner and more efficient operations. JIT production reaches to the warehouse or distribution center and makes it the central piece in inventory management. Consequently, no stakeholder in the supply chain has to wonder about what the status of the next stakeholder is.
Technology has demystified the process and now enables to ship only when it is needed to ship and carry no more stock than it is needed at any given time. Real-time Internet of Things (IoT) devices assist in shipping the correct items and knowing the exact location of where they are. One can detect & track individual products and communicate their corresponding information in real-time.
The Ultimate Challenge of Warehouse Inventory Management
Each of the trends on this list illustrates a way to make everything to do with warehouse inventory more transparent. Inventory levels can vary extensively due to seasonality, business cycles and promotions.
The biggest challenge of warehouse inventory management is the large variety of solutions available in the market. While considering moving to a WMS solution, one has to consider its whole scope of functionality. The solution should resolve all the problems related to the chain, right from the purchase order till return management, reporting & auditing.
“Personalization to an enterprise’s functions, scalability, flexibility and affordability are very critical in a comprehensive WMS solution. As the provider of critical tech in a business’ operation, we are committed to understanding and resolving the various different pain points of each enterprise and resolving it through a single complete package so that the business can concentrate on doing what it is started for – making profits”, says Vimal Nair, Co-Founder of StockOne, one of India’s leading provider of WMS software that boasts of being the all-in-one solution to all warehousing needs and 100% customer satisfaction.