Smart Warehousing: Role of technology and automation in storage

Role of technology and automation in storage

Technology and automation have a key role to play in the warehousing segment. With the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST), the warehousing and storage segmen-ts have entered a new phase of consolidation. This consolidation has highlighted the need for seamless integration with technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Technology penetration has been witnessed in self-managing inventory systems, self-driving forklifts, autonomous ground vehicles and in other tasks, thus reducing dependence on manual operations.

Robots are equipped with high resolution cameras, pressure sensors and self-learning capabilities that can be used in collaboration with manual intervention. For instance, in warehouses, robots can be programmed to perform tasks such as picking, packing and sorting or assisting in loading and unloading of goods. Amazon is an example of a firm deploying robots for managing its warehouses. The e-retailer’s warehouses comprise multilevel criss-crossing conveyor belts with many giant vacuum-like robots methodically pushing shelves of products. Similarly, Flipkart leverages big data analytics for warehouse management since the company stocks frequently ordered items in its inventory. It recently deployed close to 100 robots in its Bengaluru-based delivery hub. Designed to pick and drop products, these robots are able to sort through 4,500 Flipkart packages per hour, thus aiding in efficient product sorting and delivery. Warehouse management through real-time tracking tools has also been deployed in the industry.

Smart warehouses

With advancements in technological and physical infrastructure, smart warehouses are evolving to offer specific value-added services that can be customised to suit the needs of high-end clients. Though a large part of warehousing operations is still manual, some of the latest technologies including cloud software, drones, internet of things (IoT) and wearable devices are gaining popularity, thus transforming the supply chain. As supply chain management assumes the function of a profit driver instead of an overhead cost for industries like manufacturing and e-commerce, many businesses are opting for outsourcing a significant part of their operations to warehousing companies. Just-in-time techniques have placed the responsibility of maintaining optimum efficiencies on warehousing companies. For example, automation start-up GreyOrange offers a very simple line of automated machines, which reduce human effort in warehousing and increase efficiency. The automation start-up is responsible for handling warehousing for Flipkart, Jabong, Myntra and PepperFry. The start-up has also introduced an AI-powered butler called PickPal, which is an automated picking system.

In the past, the cost of automation did not vary much between countries such as Japan and India, but the payback period varied from two-three years in Japan to 8-10 years in India. This was a deterrent in the deployment of automation tools in Indian warehouses. However, with rising automation requirements, many start-ups are entering this field. New innovations have led to a reduction in costs and the payback period too has decreased to five-eight years.

Advanced cold storage solutions

Advanced technological initiatives have redefined the cold storage industry in India. Tracker technologies such as GPS have enabled companies to track food sources and get proper evidence on how food remains fresh from farm to fork. Deployment of IoT devices and cloud-based software applications has also facilitated monitoring of refrigerated cargo containers. Meanwhile, smart technologies such as blockchain are becoming a major focus in supply chain management. AI applications too have great potential in bridging the gaps in cold chain management.

Emerging role of agritech warehouses in the context of COVID-19

To counter the challenges of food shortages and wastage posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the agricultural sector needs more modern and professionally managed agritech warehouses. The proposed exercise to map and geotag agricultural warehouses, cold storage and other inventory storage facilities by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development will result in greater transparency and efficiency in the sector and should be undertaken on a war footing to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the agricultural sector. Intelligent call centres too have an extremely important role to play, particularly in the present times. Smart call centres when integrated with real-time data embedded in AI help in real-time tracking of facilities, providing error-free results on the status of the warehouse, the products stored within it as well as those in transit.

At present, the agricultural warehousing segment is considering the development of modern warehouses with better infrastructure to reduce storage losses. Though modern technology is being introduced in warehouses owned/ operated by private companies, the godowns operated by government agencies still have a long way to go.