Zebra Survey Finds Warehouses Preparing to Augment Operations With Technology

The company's "2024 Warehousing Vision Study" finds that RFID and RTLS are among the technologies that three-quarters of surveyed businesses plan to use to meet the demands of the e-commerce market, even with labor shortages.
Published: June 19, 2019

With worker availability down and the volume of goods centered around e-commerce growing, warehouses and logistics companies are turning to technology to help manage their products, assets and personnel. Zebra Technologies‘ “2024 Warehousing Vision Study” found that approximately 60 percent of the decision-makers it polled expect to employ devices or technology to automate tasks and operations by 2024, while 55 percent intend to use real-time location system (RTLS) technologies that employ RFID, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) beacons or Wi-Fi connectivity to provide visibility into the locations of goods, equipment and workers.

During the survey, conducted online earlier this year, 77 percent of those who responded felt they would benefit from augmenting workers with technology as a way of introducing automation, while only 35 percent actually knew where or how they would start on the automation path. The need for change is compelling, however. Eighty percent of those surveyed said they know they need to invest in technology to remain competitive.

Zebra’s Mark Wheeler

Zebra conducts vision studies each year geared toward specific industries (see Shoppers, Retailers See Need for Better Automation, Technology in Stores). The last such study focused on the logistics market was conducted in 2016. The latest study is designed to look ahead five years to 2024, in order to provide an understanding of where warehouses and logistics providers intend to focus their strategies to meet the increasing demand for efficiency, productivity and accuracy.

Warehouses, fulfillment centers and distribution centers currently face an environment involving a higher volume of goods, a demand for faster fulfillment and a shortage of workers. When it comes to labor, the time to onboard or train those individuals can be time-consuming and costly. For logistics companies, “The business environment is changing structurally to meet the demands of the ecommerce market,” says Mark Wheeler, Zebra’s director of supply chain solutions.

In fact, Wheeler says, e-commerce growth has led to increases in both the volume and velocity of orders, culminating in two new focuses for decision makers: expanding warehouse size, as well as rethinking fulfillment strategies, such as implementing the automation of technology-based tools. Within such an environment, companies are looking at what technology has to offer them. “There’s an expectation that new technologies are coming that are going to help,” Wheeler states. “A big part of that is being manifested in the challenge regarding onboarding and retaining labor.”

Most companies plan to focus on enhancing worker performance, Wheeler notes, as opposed to simply replacing employees with technology. Three-fourths of those surveyed said they need to modernize their operations to remain competitive. Such modernization will include greater use of mobile computing via Android-based systems, the deployment of RTLS and RFID technologies, and improving their warehouse-management systems.

“We see higher expectations for physical automation and mobile technology that’s easier to learn and use,” Wheeler reports, as well as growth in visibility technologies. By gaining visibility into the locations of goods and tools at their facilities, for instance, companies can more efficiently schedule work at large warehouses.

The survey was conducted online with 1,403 warehouse decision makers. It was isolated to companies with 250 or more employees, and with revenues of $5 million or more, throughout the manufacturing, retail, transportation, wholesale distribution and logistics sectors. The majority of responders were in IT, operations or executive management within their organizations.

The reported challenges varied according to geography, though growth is a universal challenge worldwide. For instance, 87 percent of those surveyed said they were expanding or planned to expand the size of their warehouses by 2024. In addition, 82 percent reported that they expect to increase the number of warehouses they operate by that year. Capacity utilization was reported as a top challenge by 59 percent of respondents, while the majority of those within that group said they plan to address it by expanding the size of their warehouses. Labor recruiting is a growing problem, however, especially in urban areas. Sixty percent of respondents said recruiting labor, as well as labor efficiency and productivity, posed significant challenges.

Additionally, North American companies are seeking solutions to manage the growing amount of space in which goods are being stored and managed. The sheer size of a facility means that walking or driving around a warehouse to locate goods is becoming increasingly time-consuming and, therefore, inefficient. Moreover, fulfillment centers are competing with other warehouses and DCs for limited labor resources.

In fact, the survey found that it takes four to eight weeks before employees are trained to be fully productive, especially when they work with inbound and outbound goods. “Modern technology can shorten that onboarding time,” Wheeler says. The types of tools that can help include vehicle-mounted computers, handheld devices and other wearables. They can also include RFID readers to capture tags on goods or vehicles that move around a facility.

Ninety-four percent of all North American respondents said they will be seeking to improve trailer load optimization or load compliance solutions by 2024, which is another challenge that technology could help to address. For instance, by tagging items as they are loaded onto vehicles, or by using sensors at dock doors or on vehicles, companies could learn how much empty space is available inside a trailer or vehicle, and accommodations could thus be made for workers to pack items more efficiently.

Material-handling innovations are also growing, the study indicated, particularly in Europe. Twenty-five percent of European companies surveyed said they intend to use RFID and other locating technologies for multiple operational processes, including to increase the efficiency of outbound operations and improve their packing processes and inventory management.

Latin American companies reported an interest in employing Android-based mobile computers to increase labor efficiency and productivity. In the Asia-Pacific region, 73 percent of decision makers said they plan to deploy wearables, such as smart watches, smart glasses or hip-mounted devices, to increase the efficiency of workers who could use such technologies to more easily view their tasks, how they are working and when a potential error might occur.

With regard to RTLS solutions, 43 percent of those polled said they are currently doing something with RTLS technologies—however, their definition of the term may be broad. Even identifying where a Wi-Fi-based device is located based on the node to which it transmits, Wheeler notes, would be a form of visibility or RTLS.

The majority of respondents (53 percent) said they are using technology to locate goods or assets, either with RFID or some other locating technology, while 92 percent said they intend to implement the technology further within the next five years. Reliance on mobile devices is significant as well. Currently, 23 percent of companies said they are using Android-based devices in their warehouses, while 84 percent reported plans to implement Android technologies throughout the next five years.

There is still considerable work ahead for technology companies to provide solutions that warehouses can begin deploying. Approximately 41 percent of those polled said they didn’t know where to start with automation. Around 73 percent indicated an interest in partial automation with some human involvement or augmentation, in which humans would use devices as tools to improve their efficiency. They indicated that technology could help optimize the use of temporary and seasonal help, decrease training times and help to recruit labor with more technical skill sets.

Wheeler cites the notion that technology can work well with human labor as one of the study’s key and unexpected findings. The majority of respondents indicated that a balance of warehouse labor and technology would be their preference for the optimal balance for their warehousing operations. The study findings are consistent with the results of a 2016 vision study, the company reports, in which 70 percent of respondents said they planned to accelerate their technology investments by 2020.

“We do vision studies every year,” Wheeler says. In the case of repeated surveys for a single vertical market, he adds, the results can be compared. The company can then use that data to better target its own development work. “This is our business,” he states. “We’re engaged with solution providers day in and day out, and we’re constantly looking at what’s coming around the corner.”