2019 predictions: The role of technology in the supply chain

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The growing presence of technology will be the overarching warehouse and supply chain trend to look out for in 2019. This increased uptake of technological innovations will be necessary for retailers to keep up with the evolving demands of their customers and to stay competitive in an ever-developing industry. Businesses must utilise technology that will increase their productivity and improve the customer experience they are providing.

Reduction in siloed systems within the supply chain

Unfortunately, the various systems at play throughout the supply chain are often separated and siloed from each other. This makes the collaboration and seamless integration that could lead to higher levels of productivity harder to achieve. Interconnectivity between these previously independent systems will be a key trend to watch out for in 2019. Retailers can achieve this by employing an efficient Order Management Solution (OMS) that can combine warehouse and back office operations and provide management teams with a new level of visibility. Better data collection will enable businesses to analyse supply chain operations more effectively and gain a clearer picture of the business as a whole.

Consumer buying habits to shift online

2019 will see consumer preferences shifting further towards eCommerce rather than High Street shopping. The companies that have not mitigated for this change will be the ones to suffer most in the retail environment we are due to experience over the coming year. Customers value the ease of online shopping, with no time constraints and often lower prices. Businesses can adapt to this change through an eCommerce strategy or by introducing more technology into their stores. The idea behind this is that instore technology reduces the gap between shopping on the High Street and online by providing customers with many of the benefits of shopping online, in person. This will be achieved by sales assistants using ruggedised tablets and smart phones to stock check and order items for customers while they wait.

Uptake of robotics in the warehouse

As well as software developments such as OMS, businesses will utilise physical technology within warehouses more frequently in the coming year. The first form this hardware will take is collaborative robots (cobots) which will be implemented alongside a company’s existing employees. Cobots allow employees to be upskilled and work on more meaningful and challenging tasks while the cobots take on tasks that are repetitive and boring. As well as this, the cobots are able to complete tasks more efficiently, with greater precision and be deployed for longer periods of time without the need for breaks.

Another form of automated collaboration is the idea of the bionic worker. This works in a similar way to cobots in the sense that it involves human employees and robots working closely together, however the employees use the technology to enhance their own productivity. Examples of how this can work are smart glasses or voice picking software, which both leave the worker with two hands free to complete their tasks. This is especially important as the boom in eCommerce has meant that warehouse workers are under pressure to hit huge KPIs.

Automation, rather than collaborative automation, will also be seen more commonly in warehouses throughout 2019 in the form of drone technology. These machines will be used to complete tasks such as surveying aisles and moving small items. When equipped with mobile scanning technology, drones can take on similar tasks to that of a warehouse employee with a hand-held scanner. This means they will be able to compete tasks such as stock taking and sorting returns. While these uses of drone technology remain quite basic and enclosed, the future will see them becoming independent, artificially intelligent machines capable of delivering goods to customers outside of the warehouse.

Delivery will evolve alongside the consumer   

The growing prevalence of online shopping means consumer expectations of delivery are changing. Consumers are choosing to shop online because of its ease and convenience, and this must continue after they have clicked the buy button. Retailers are likely to employ ‘hyper-local warehouses’ to deal with the demands of their consumers for fast and reliable delivery. Hyper-local warehouses are smaller, satellite warehouses in closer proximity to large numbers of customers, locations on the outskirts of a large city are ideal. Their location allows items to be delivered much faster than from a main distribution centre due to the smaller physical distance between warehouse and consumer. Consumers are shying away from the High Street, which is likely to result in the closure of some stores. However, it is this unused square-footage that can be transformed into hyper-local warehouses.

Software upgrades to keep up with demand

The pressure on technology within the supply chain is always increasing as it becomes more responsible for the successful completion of growing numbers of tasks from deliveries and returns to stock checks and sorting. This pressure, in combination with the fast approaching Windows End Of Life, means that businesses must transition away from legacy technology in favour of an efficient and reliable Android operating system (OS). Legacy technology can put a company at risk because it is more susceptible to cyberattacks, as it is no longer supported or patched by its manufacturer, which can lead to inefficiency or downtime. In 2019, we will see more and more retailers making the move to an Android OS. Many will choose to make the shift in stages, rather than transferring all of their devices at once, as this will make it easier for staff to adjust to the change and therefore reduce the time spent learning a new system which could result in lost productivity.

Chris Tozer, Territory Manager for UK, Ireland and Italy, Ivanti Supply Chain
Image source: Shutterstock/KAMONRAT