The little guys are doing automation right

April 30, 2021
How smaller E-commerce businesses are leveraging automation, visibility and analytics.

By Mark Wheeler, Zebra Technologies’ director of supply chain solutions 

2020 changed virtually everything, and it’s the dawning of a new era for e-commerce companies. In a  survey of small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) conducted by BizTechInsights on behalf of Zebra Technologies, nearly 70% of respondents said they’ve experienced a significant increase in sales since the start of COVID-19—and they want to take advantage of that opportunity.

Savvy supply chain companies are exploring new ways to improve operations and are keen to throw out antiquated business models that no longer apply. Forward-thinking industry leaders are embracing three fundamental strategies to help them thrive in the coming years.

1.     Make the most of existing operations

Say goodbye to yesterday’s massive warehouses. Innovative operators are minimizing their warehouse square footage and maximizing the use of inventory space. Newly emerging warehouse-automation technologies are proving particularly useful in these scenarios as they are more scalable, flexible and affordable than ever before.

Smart fulfillment solutions that leverage a combination of location-based and wearable technologies are enabling workers to pick multiple orders at once and replenish products while picking.

SMBs are also incorporating robotics-automation solutions into existing workflows now that the technology is both advancing and becoming easier to deploy. Warehouse operators are increasingly leveraging autonomous mobile robots (AMR) to complete tedious tasks such as moving picked orders to the trailer yard and replenishing parts. A wireless “call” system can automatically tell robots when and where new parts are needed, which helps save valuable labor resources, particularly given that up to 60% of a picker’s time is spent walking through the warehouse.

2.     Gain greater visibility  

As companies move to minimize warehouse space, they are increasingly relying on multiple channels to fulfill customer orders. Case in point: as of February 2021, buy online, pickup instore (BOPIS) had grown 67% over the previous year, in large part due to COVID-19.

Throngs of shoppers took advantage of new delivery options during the pandemic, making out-of-stocks an even bigger problem than during the pandemic’s initial surge demand period. Even as recently as January of 2021, out-of-stocks remained at four time’s pre-pandemic levels.

Leading firms are rapidly turning to radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to solve this problem. RFID gives real-time visibility into assets and inventory so that organizations can precisely track stock status. With RFID, supply chain organizations can better plan and manage inventory to reduce out-of-stocks, and warehouse operators can fulfill orders more quickly and accurately.

3.     Migrate to prescriptive analytics

Supply chain companies are also looking for more visibility into their operations. The lightning-quick changes in consumer and supplier behaviors in 2020 reinforced the need for better data analysis to help companies adapt to the unexpected. In 2021, more businesses are turning to prescriptive-analytic solutions that analyze patterns of behavior to uncover business challenges.

Instead of delivering complex spreadsheets filled with hard-to-interpret data, prescriptive analytics is designed to provide best-next-move instructions to field workers or managers via handheld mobile computers, tablets and other devices. The technology is ideal for smaller organizations that often lack the data-analysis resources necessary to interpret an extraordinary amount of highly complex information.

One interesting example of prescriptive analytics’ value proposition is found in loading operations. A prescriptive-analytics system can use sensor data to guide employees during the trailer-loading process, giving them real-time instructions on how to readjust packages and pallets to improve space utilization and time efficiency. Prescriptive analytics can also be used to alert decision makers when suppliers miss deadlines so that they can take the necessary steps to avoid supply chain interruptions.

Looking to the future

Today’s supply chain organizations recognize that they need automation, visibility and analytics to move forward. The BizTechInsights survey of small and medium-sized warehouse operators found that 54% want to make technology investments and operational changes that help them “attain increased asset visibility, real-time guidance and data driven performance.”

Fortunately, technologies that are more cost-effective and easier to deploy are emerging to help businesses of all sizes thrive in the post-pandemic world.