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What’s in the future?

09 June 2021

Windsor Materials Handling cautions against being too prescriptive about warehouse solutions, and meditates on broader climate challenges.

The good people of the UKWA tell us that around 1,500 properties make up 420 million sq ft of warehouses in the UK, but the makeup is varied. For example, 80% of the units occupied by the wholesale sector are below 250,000 sq ft whereas in the food retail sector 80% of the units occupied are above it. Clearly, there’s not one solution for all.

Warehouse operators will always want value, certainly. They will also always want efficiency and be somewhat indifferent to how that efficiency is implemented. Warehouse operators will always want good service and maintenance for any machinery they may acquire (something Windsor, of course, excels at). Much of what they want needs a human touch.

Photo credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash

So, when companies talk about the future of the warehouse and its impending automation, you can understand why others think that most warehouse operations will never be automated. Perhaps the definition of warehouse here is important, beyond the big sheds, as well as the interpretation of what automation looks like. 

Sales of robotic vacuum cleaners rocketed during lockdown. Zoom calls allow the speakers voice to be prioritised automatically. This article was dictated into a machine that converted the words into text, is that automation? Yes, most people would say (but, then again they didn’t see how many corrections the writer needed to make). People have been an integral part of the shopping experience for years, at checkouts and in stores. That hasn’t stopped Amazon and others designing new stores where humans are simply not needed.

Before the advent of self-driving cars and laser guided QR code reading mobile shelves, the savvy warehouse operator utilised a computerised management system to tell humans the best place to position a fast (or slow) moving item. The aim of the game was (and is) to do things more efficiently in order to save costs. So we can probably agree that companies will only turn to new forms of warehousing if the financial benefits are clear. Odd sized, unpalletised loads may be the last hurdle that machines have to overcome before they can takeover, but takeover they will. 

Sure, it’ll take time. Humans are flexible, if not always cheap. Humans can use their initiative, make quick predictions and respond to unforeseen circumstances. The cost of automated machines will become cheaper and become more commonplace, like a robot lawnmower with forks or a semi-autonomous drone.

Yet, all this techno navel-gazing ignores the biggest issue concerning the future of the warehouse – the climate. The pitiful attempts by businesses and legislators to counteract the human-caused rising global temperatures with 30 year plans and hollow carbon offsetting targets will surely come home to roost. Flooding, droughts, heatwaves, landslides, hurricanes, migration are all set to increase. They will bring a host of infrastructure and logistical problems that will make pick rate optimisation seem like a walk in the park.

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