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Covid-proof the supply chain with warehouse productivity

(Image credit: Image Credit: Microsoft)

There’s no denying the global impact of Covid-19 across almost every industry, and supply chain businesses are no exception. The last few months have been challenging, with no signs of respite. During the UK lockdown, there was a 129 percent boom in online shopping, due to consumers preferring not to risk visiting brick-and-mortar shops and supermarkets. This has had a huge impact on warehouse and supply chain organizations, which have had to deal with fluctuating demand, social distancing regulations and redefine productivity.

Rethinking productivity to manage added pressure

Warehouse technology is crucial for supply chain organizations trying to maximize productivity, whilst struggling with fewer employees, due to social distancing and sickness.

Handheld mobile devices are a key method of empowering staff to stay productive. Such devices are well established in the modern warehouse, but significant upgrades to the technology mean that they can now play a far greater role in Covid-proofing businesses. In the past, employees had to rely on outdated green screen devices, but the latest upgrades now offer sleek, streamlined designs and user-friendly interfaces. These devices are much easier to use, but crucially, they simplify the training process for new employees, making onboarding a much quicker and more efficient experience. New joiners are able to get started straight away, without being bogged down in lengthy training processes. At a time when employees on the warehouse floor are under increased pressure to meet heightened demand, being able to hit the ground running is vital to ensuring a high level of productivity.

Order picking is much easier with these upgrades. Plus, with the integration of wearable devices, employees no longer have to rely on slow manual processes, such as consulting a print-out to see which items they need to pick and where they are. With hands-free wearables, such as vision and voice-enabled devices, pickers can complete more orders within the same timeframe by benefiting from increased accuracy and speed.

When golf equipment company, TaylorMade, implemented voice-enabled picking technology, it discovered the benefits almost immediately. Before implementing these wearable devices, it had a team of 25 pickers averaging 41 transactions per hour. After 8 months, it managed to achieve 184 transactions per hour with a team of 14, and its error rate reduced dramatically from 40-50 percent to just 1 percent. This kind of efficiency is key for businesses to maintain a competitive edge and stay productive, which is crucial during a time such as this when businesses cannot afford to make errors and jeopardize the customer experience. 

Streamlining inventory management

Many businesses have been blighted by low stock due to the increase in consumer demand, which could be detrimental to customer satisfaction. Inventory management is therefore vital when it comes to ensuring good service and a positive customer experience.

To get this right, supply chain businesses need the ability to track items, ensure they are stocked appropriately depending on predicted consumer demand, and that stock levels are communicated along the chain to ensure there is no missing link. For example, removing products from the website as soon as they become out of stock to avoid disappointment from customers whose orders can’t be fulfilled. This is key to ensuring exceptional customer service, even during a pandemic. 

As online shopping is booming, supply chain companies must get the balance right when it comes to matching supply with demand. An overstocked inventory can place undue pressure on limited and costly warehouse capacity, as well as cause lost revenue as perishable goods go out of date and are wasted. On the other hand, businesses with low stock are faced with the prospect of losing customers due to a lack of available items or a disappointing range of goods on offer. Good customer service, and thus customer relationships, are underpinned by accurate inventory management. By prioritizing accuracy within this process, businesses can ensure they strike the right balance between too much and too little, and strengthen their ability to preserve the bottom line.

It’s also worth noting that manual inventory management is an area where mistakes due to human error often occur, leading to complaints and poor-quality customer service. A manual inventory management process can put the business at risk of over or underselling due to simple errors. Inventory management is complex and time-consuming without the appropriate technologies in place to expedite the process. If a customer purchases an out of stock item, the company’s brand reputation could take a hit, and the customer service team will have to offer discounts or promotions in order to win them back, impacting revenue at a time when UK businesses are navigating the deepest recession on record.

Keeping employees safe

With more accurate picking, supply chain companies can continue business as normal, whilst adapting to these new and uncertain times. Consumer demand can be met as it rises and falls even with fewer employees in the warehouse thanks to enhanced accuracy. What’s more, there can be a reduction in the number of times items are handled as a result of fewer errors occurring. Voice and vision-picking solutions can also inform employees of the most efficient route around the warehouse to fulfil their quota, reducing unnecessary contact with colleagues as they can head straight to the location they need to, without having to double back.

As businesses are adapting to cope with the post-Covid ‘new normal’, they must also contend with a recession – the likes of which we have never experienced before. Businesses that are able to remain productive, whilst also becoming cost-effective with strategic technological investments, will be the ones that succeed and weather the storm. However, at a time of increased job uncertainty, warehouse employees should be reassured that the shift towards automated technologies won’t impact their jobs. In fact, these technologies are designed to augment human employees, rather than replace them. For example, collaborative robots (cobots) can increase productivity and facilitate precision, while irreplaceable human qualities such as strategic thinking and common sense remain crucial.

Whilst the future is uncertain, implementing innovative technology, such as handheld mobile devices and voice-picking solutions, can ensure that supply chain businesses are able to optimize their operations, cope with the surge in eCommerce, and safeguard themselves against an unpredictable future.

Marcus Jeffery, Territory Manager – UK and Ireland, Ivanti Wavelink

Marcus Jeffery is Territory Manager – UK and Ireland at Ivanti Supply Chain.