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5 key warehouse functions to automate: lessons from Ocado, Amazon and Zalando


According to Capgemini, warehouse automation could potentially increase margins by 8% through higher throughput and lower fulfilment costs. The interest is certainly there from retailers, with Zalando’s logistics head recently suggesting creating an “open operating system” for automation in distribution centres along the lines of Android, allowing different systems in a warehouse to share data.
Here is a non-exhaustive list of some of the proven processes that can be automated in the warehouse.

  1. Pick and pack robots

Industrial machines which don’t require manual intervention by humans are nothing new, especially in production lines. However, robots now have the intelligence through software to not only perform functions but to vary their functions in response to their surroundings.

This means that robots can seek out specific products and assemble an order, or at least help human employees to do so. For example, Amazon’s distribution centre employees are supported by robots which autonomously bring them the correct items from the warehouse to complete an order.

Meanwhile, the UK online grocer Ocado has had some success selling its Smart Platform, which is a combined hardware and software platform for fulfilling orders. It consists of a dense cellular network and a robotics grid for picking and packing, as well as the software to manage these. Casino in France and Kroeger in the US are making use of the technology.

  1. Inventory management

The old model for inventory management relies on employees manually monitoring stock levels and then inputting this information into digital record systems. There is much potential for human error which can lead to problems fulfilling orders.

One possibility is introducing RFID or other types of sensors to products. These can then trigger an alert when a product has entered or left the warehouse, meaning that records are kept up-to-date.

With the basic inventory record systems automated, warehouse owners can build other intelligent systems on top of them.

For example, cross reference warehouse inventory levels with those in store and order data and you can predict not only where stock is most needed but which warehouses are best placed to source stock. You can also update web shops with real-time availability.

  1. Environmental condition monitoring

With the growth in online grocery deliveries, the perishable nature of some food products is a key factor that needs to be considered. It is not just true of groceries, of course. Chemicals and pharmaceuticals can be affected by changes in temperature particularly, with medicines having very specific ‘allowable excursion times’ specifying how long they can be out of refrigerators.

It is not just temperature; there are other conditions that may have an impact on a product’s viability, such as humidity.

The perennial buzz-phrase the Internet of Things is a useful solution here. Equipping products with sensors that connect to a wireless network can allow logistics professionals to monitor them remotely. Warehouse owners can centrally set rules about the environmental conditions and trigger alerts when a specific product or set of products is being stored in an unsuitable environment.

  1. Safety

While humans still do the bulk of the work in warehouses safety remains a primary concern. While automation is not a complete panacea, it can remove some of the potential for harmful human errors or help extend the reach of safety systems into areas of warehouses that are less accessible.

Safety monitoring solutions, for example, can automatically transmit a safety alert if an employee on the warehouse floor becomes incapacitated or otherwise unable to request help manually using a monitoring device.

Other solutions can help to manage the sometimes dangerous interactions between humans and machines. For example, Amazon recently introduced automated safety belts which automatically ward off robots in the warehouse, causing them to steer away from areas where human workers are active.

  1. Shipping

The last interaction a warehouse has with a product is dispatching it. All sorts of factors weigh into the choice of a shipping service and need to be weighed up, including speed, price and the shipper’s own availability.

As well as choosing the service, the dispatcher has to print shipping labels, book deliveries and notify customers.

However, all of these processes can be automated. Once an order is ready for dispatch the shipping label can be printed and the appointment with the courier booked automatically.

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