5 Warehouse Operations Technology Trends to Watch

Johnny Marx
May 2, 2016

The world of warehouse operations technology is constantly evolving. What was once a highly labor intensive and manual business process has increasingly become collaborative, cloud-based and automated, thanks to advances in technology that are delivering the ability to streamline warehouse operations, gather and analyze data to improve performance and meet customer needs, and put enterprise-grade warehouse management into the hands of even the smallest B2B manufacturers and distributors. Here are some of the biggest technology trends that are most likely to impact your warehouse operations in the next few years.

5 Warehouse Operations Technology Trends

1. Internet of Things  

Experts say the next wave of business improvement in warehouse operations will come from the Internet of Things, the connection of billions of items to the Internet––enabling data collection and analysis and allow items to be tracked and traced both within a warehouse facility and as it moves through the supply chain and into the customer’s hands. According to Gartner Group, devices connected to the Internet of Things are predicted to increase 30-fold by 2020, up from less than 1 billion in 2015. As these devices proliferate, it will be possible to monitor everything from geolocation to the location of items within a supply chain.

2. Big Data

Of course, collecting data from the billions of devices that will be connected to the Internet of Things isn’t particularly valuable unless you have the capability to analyze and gain business insight from it. That’s why Big Data is a trend to watch for warehouse operations. As companies gather and store more detailed and historical information, that information must be analyzed. Doing so will allow companies to identify and predict changes in customer needs, necessary product improvements, or even improvements in warehouse operations that can allow manufacturers to fulfill customer orders more quickly.

3. Wearables

Of course, the Internet of Things isn’t just about “things.” With the advent of wearable devices, it’s also about people. Wearables such as the FitBit and iWatch are one of the hottest trends with consumers, enabling users to track their steps and access a variety of apps right from a device on their wrist. In the near future, we may see them becoming as essential to B2B warehouse operations as more traditional mobile devices. How can wearables be used in warehouse operations? Wearables essentially sit at the intersection of multiple trends in IT: mobile, the Internet of Things, and Big Data. Think about the ways you are seeing mobile devices used today, and imagine a device you wear that provides the additional component of continuous tracking of your warehouse employees. Wearables bring the human element to the Internet of Things, giving companies multiple ways to improve warehouse operations, such as tracking employee movement, monitoring safety and delivering better quality and service to customers. Just as with other elements of the Internet of Things, the challenge with wearables is going to be analyzing the data that wearables can provide. Computing power, data storage and a strong understanding of how to use the data wearables can provide are some of the biggest challenges currently standing in the way of more widespread adoption.

4. Mobile Devices

The trend towards mobile in warehouse operations began more than 15 years ago with the use of handheld barcode and RFID readers in the warehouse. Since then, it has evolved to include a host of devices, from ruggedized handhelds with built-in cameras, RFID capabilities and voice-enabled functionality to mobile "smart" printers with built-in intelligence that enables them to produce labels without being hard-wired to a computer system. Other mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones are also making inroads into warehouse operations, with widespread adoption especially among smaller companies for whom they combine the advantages of cost-effectiveness and ubiquity. Smartphones are the most widely used mobile device in supply chain and logistics operations, according to a recent survey by market research firm ARC Advisory Group. Advantages of mobile devices for users include familiarity, resulting in lower training costs and more widespread adoption among users.

5. Cloud Technology

Warehouse management systems have traditionally lagged behind other applications when it comes to providing cloud-based solutions for warehouse operations. Recent studies indicate that while as much as 45% of the CRM market consists of cloud-based solutions, only 21% of WMS systems are cloud-based. One of the challenges with cloud technology in the warehouse has been that warehouse operations very rarely happen anywhere other than the warehouse, which means there is little need for access to the WMS system from mobile devices outside the warehouse. Anytime, anywhere access has traditionally been a selling point of the cloud, but it has been held to have little appeal for WMS applications. However, this perception is beginning to change. Experts agree that the cloud could be making its way to a warehouse near you in the very near future. The cloud offers significant advantages for smaller, rapidly growing warehouse operations since it has a low cost of ownership and small IT footprint that enables smaller organizations to access technology to drive more efficiency from their warehouse operations without a large upfront investment. These are just a few of the hottest technology trends that could impact your warehouse operations in the next few years. What trends in warehouse operations are you watching? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.