Improving Fulfillment Efficiency Amid COVID-19

Improving fulfillment efficiency is a goal of virtually all successful warehouse operations. It’s an especially necessary aim now. The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic continues to disrupt global supply chains. It’s spurring consumers to buy online to avoid spending time in spaces that could increase their likelihood of contracting the virus.

The path to boosting warehouse efficiency starts with facility managers becoming aware of vulnerabilities and working to improve them. Those individuals also need to research the specific ways to apply different strategies to meet goals. These four suggestions will steer supply chain professionals in the right direction. 

Robots move around in a warehouse space.

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1. Determine how artificial intelligence might help

Some order fulfillment woes stem from a lack of knowledge. If supply chain companies do not have accurate perceptions of whether their maximum output can meet demand, they may waste time and energy on tasks ultimately doomed to fail. Artificial intelligence (AI) can give enterprises detailed insights about patterns and trends that they would otherwise miss, helping warehouse staff anticipate and prepare for challenges. AI can also keep customers satisfied.

At the end of April 2020, Walmart Inc (NYSE: WMT) introduced its Express Delivery service, which lets consumers place orders for merchandise and have it delivered in under two hours. The world’s largest retailer depends on tens of thousands of personal shoppers to pick the items. It also developed a high-tech AI system that uses machine learning algorithms to consider thousands of variables, such as the number of products in an order and the driving distance between a store and the customer’s home. 

The system analyzes the data to give accurate expectations of order times, thereby keeping shoppers informed and ensuring Walmart doesn’t set promises it can’t keep. Walmart’s approach makes sense, but there is no universally successful way to apply AI to boost warehouse efficiency. Those interested in doing it should assess where the weak points exist, and how AI could strengthen them. 

Rows of warehouse shelving 24-feet tall

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2. Reassess the racking system and warehouse layout, then make changes if needed

An inadequate warehouse layout can substantially hinder efforts to improve fulfillment efficiency. The racking setup is an excellent place to start. Determine whether the current system meets your needs. Does it offer the capacities required? For example, a coil racking system provides a load capacity of 80,000 pounds or more per bay. 

Concerning the layout, warehouse managers should think about the typical movement flow associated with goods, people, and equipment. Is it possible that employees have to travel too far to find what they need? Referring to a map of the current warehouse layout can assist in making effective changes. 

Companies that utilize a warehouse management system (WMS) may discover new ways to increase efficiency while maintaining social distancing. For example, zone picking lets someone stay in a defined area while working, and it’s easier to introduce after becoming more familiar with the layout. Voice technology could also integrate with a WMS and allow people to get things done with more hands-free tasks. 

Robots being delployed to pick-and-pack in a warehouse

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3. Invest in robots to speed fulfillment times

Decision-makers became interested in robots for improving fulfillment efficiency before the coronavirus pandemic occurred. Those high-tech machines are arguably even more appealing now, though. Requirements to self-isolate after experiencing symptoms could severely restrict warehouse staffing capabilities, thereby affecting maximum efficiency. Robots can keep operations moving even with reduced numbers of human employe

COVID-19 also gave robotics companies plenty of opportunities to advertise their offerings, presenting specific use cases in which machines could help pick up the slack when the virus affects workforces. Thus, if brands were open to using robots before the coronavirus impacted their workflow, they may realize there’s no reason to delay a planned investment any longer. 

Besides assisting with repetitive warehouse tasks, robots speed up the movement of materials. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) can steer around obstacles and move freely about a facility, for example. 

A device in the aisle between two warehouse racks reads RFID tags on the inventory.

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4. Sync inventory tags with connected devices

Radiofrequency identification (RFID) tags are crucial parts of achieving better warehouse efficiency. An RFID identifier lets an employee instantly verify the contents of a package or case. If workers use a computer interface that shows real-time tag data, they can get details of where to find the particular items they need. 

RFID tags are not new, but a relatively new development involves making the Internet of Things (IoT) gadgets recognize the information they hold. For example, if a connected item has a sensor to read RFID data, it could help cut down on unnecessary processes made by warehouse workers. Anything from a forklift to dock door can contain an IoT sensor capable of reading the all-important radio frequency identification data about inventory items. 

Warehouse visibility is a crucial part of making gains in order fulfillment times. When a supply chain company knows how many items it has and the locations of those goods, it reduces or eliminates unnecessary staff member movement that wastes time and causes frustration. 

Improving order fulfillment times is an ongoing process

These four suggestions will get supply chain professionals off to a strong start as they explore how to keep warehouse efficiency levels high during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, they must take the time to figure out which solutions best fit their needs, and realize that training or new processes may optimize the overall results.

Cover photo by ELEVATE from Pexels.

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