Logistics can be a labyrinthine process, yet it’s essential for businesses of all sizes in all industries. Broadly speaking, it’s the process of getting products from point A to point Z, but those products can include everything from janitorial supplies to groceries. Logistics companies must coordinate between manufacturers, trucking companies, end customers, and others. It’s a tangled, convoluted industry, but automated logistics can be transformational.
What Is Automated Logistics?
Logistics automation is nothing more than the process of applying digital technology to logistics. This can include software, as well as automated machinery. The goal is to improve the efficiency of logistics operations while driving down costs and eliminating errors related to manual processes. But how can automation transform businesses? It all comes down to addressing three critical problems: the ongoing worker shortage, the effects of eCommerce, and the advent of new automation technology.
The Worker Shortage
Logistics companies across all verticals continue to suffer from a worker shortage. This applies to warehouses and fulfillment centers, as well as transport companies, and more. Many of these jobs can be automated, which will save companies money, as well as improve their efficiency. That’s because automated machines don’t need breaks, don’t make the same number of errors as human workers, never take vacations, and don’t need health benefits.
That’s not to say that technology will be able to fill all of those gaps, nor should it. Almost 3% of the U.S. workforce is employed in the logistics industry in some capacity, so a significant shift from human to machine labor would have profound impacts that would ripple throughout every economic sector with perhaps devastating consequences.
The Rise of eCommerce
The second challenge facing the logistics industry is the explosion of eCommerce businesses. Thanks in large part to the pandemic, eCommerce has become an incredible juggernaut. Of course, the trend was already there. All the pandemic did was accelerate an existing shift toward online shopping. The dramatically increased volume is good news for logistics companies’ bottom lines, but it doesn’t come without challenges.
One of those is the need to adapt to the B2B2C model. Another is the lack of eCommerce-specific storage within warehouses. Most large logistics companies lack purpose-built warehousing for eCommerce clients. Instead, they’re divvying up their conventional warehouse space. However, as volume continues to increase, that puts additional strain on existing systems.
The final trend is the arrival of more advanced automation technology that’s designed specifically for the logistics industry. Fully automated warehouses are now possible, where machines and software handle everything from order processing to unloading trucks and pick/pack requirements for outgoing orders/shipments. This trend is actually the answer to the two challenges mentioned above.
Exploring Logistics Automation Technologies
A wide range of logistics automation technologies exists today and can help organizations achieve new efficiencies in multiple areas. Some of the most promising technologies include the following:
Automated Guided Vehicles – These vehicles are piloted by software, requiring no human operators or even remote operators. They are responsible for moving cases and pallets around warehouses, onto and off trailers, and so much more. This technology has advanced to the point that manual forklifts can be retrofitted to make them autonomous, saving companies money over having to buy entire vehicles to replace an aging, manually operated fleet.
Swarm Robots – Amazon might be the most famous to use these automated robots, but they’re coming to warehouses and fulfillment centers around the country. Swarm robots can handle just about anything required of them, including moving shelves with products on them to picking stations, and so much more.
Advanced Storage and Retrieval Systems – What happens if someone combines standing racks with robotic pick/pack shuttles? It’s a much more efficient storage and retrieval system. These advanced systems can store and retrieve much faster and more accurately than old-style systems operated by human beings, and there are virtually no errors or accidents, either.
The Need for More Efficient Sorting
As the eCommerce boom has continued, logistics companies have found the need for more and more efficient sorting. This applies to all segments of the process, from sorting inbound products and stacking them on storage racks to pulling products from racks for shipment to further parts of the system.
Advanced conveyor systems fill this role with a combination of different automation technologies. That includes:
Labeling and Printing – Conveyor systems now have built-in labeling and printing capabilities, allowing them to print barcodes and apply them to goods while they’re in transit to storage. This saves time and improves accuracy over human-guided activities.
Automated Sortation – Conveyor systems can scan barcodes of goods while in transit in the system and sort them correctly. This eliminates time-consuming, tedious work for human beings.
Automated Weighing – Weight plays a significant role in the logistics process, and automated conveyor systems can now weigh goods while they’re transiting the system, either inbound for storage or outbound for shipping. That information can then be used to sort, store, or load effectively.
In addition to the technologies covered above, additional options are now coming to market. For instance, modern drones are now taking their place within the logistics industry, both in warehouses and fulfillment centers, as well as within so-called “last mile” applications, allowing drones to deliver products directly to the end customer.
Exoskeletons for human use are also now beginning to be available. These offer greater strength and resilience, as well as protection against accidents while augmenting human motion with mechanical power.
Finding a Trusted Automated Logistics Partner
Warehouses, shipping companies, fulfillment centers, and others interested in taking advantage of automated logistics must find a trusted partner in the industry. The right automated logistics company can offer access to software and automated machinery to improve efficiency, reduce costs, and improve profitability tailored to the organization’s unique needs and goals. A trusted partner will also be able to keep companies up to date with emerging technology so they can take advantage of innovations as they come to market, rather than playing catch up.