Warehouse operators are increasingly turning to technology to drive process optimisation to meet customer expectations, and according to a recent study, Internet of Things technologies are one of the core reasons for this growth.

In the recently released Warehouse Vision Study, Zebra Technologies surveyed 1,370 IT and warehouse operations professionals on their opinions in 2015 and expectations for 2020.

The general takeaway from the study is that increasing consumer expectations will drive IT investments up over the next four years as direct-to-customer operations rapidly grow.

For example, the study found that shorter delivery times were seen as a major contributing factor to IT investment growth, according to 40 percent of respondents. Combined with the expectation by 76 percent of respondents that warehouse locations and shipping volumes will increase, this will place tremendous pressure on companies to satisfy future demand.

In addition, more than 50 percent of respondents cited the desire to enhance customer service as the reason behind their increased investment in cycle count (time- and location-specific stock auditing) and inventory management technology.

“Customers want their products, and they want them ASAP – so investing in a good IT infrastructure to ensure their expectations are met is an absolute must,” said Wayne Harper, senior technology director for the APAC region at Zebra Technologies.

Investment in real-time location systems, such as RFID and GPS systems, grew for approximately half of those surveyed in 2015, with 76 percent of respondents expecting an increase in investment in these technologies by 2020.

“With a significant increase in direct-to-customer sales, real-time location tracking enables staff to more quickly pick and pack the relevant items. It’s also crucial for enabling task interleaving in an efficient manner, which helps improve overall warehouse productivity,” Harper said.

Modern hardware requires modern, feature-rich warehouse management systems to manage them, and 75 percent of respondents have plans to update their management systems to cater to new technologies by 2020

These warehouse management systems will be crucial, as they will provide the capability of aggregating data collected throughout the value chain and enable insight and action on a real-time and predictive basis.

“Good management is key to staying competitive in the new era of Warehouse 2020. Having the right tools and technology is essential, but you can’t discount the human element either,” Harper added.

Are barcode technologies still relevant?

Barcode scanning technologies have been a part of the industry for a number of years, and this trend is set to continue in the future, with 68 percent of respondents expecting some level of increased investment in the technology over the next four years.

Furthermore, there is an expectation that the number of barcoded items shipped will increase from 66 percent in 2015 to 82 percent in 2020.

“Barcoding is a virtually indispensable part of warehouse operations – it’s not going anywhere,” noted Harper. “But it is evolving. We’re seeing increased adoption of 2D barcoding, which enables the storage of greater amounts of information, which in turn enables more accurate stock-keeping.”

Barcode scanning is also being used in conjunction with voice recognition, which allows staff to keep both hands free for other tasks, and not be forced to use a handheld scanner.

While the vast majority of companies in 2015 were only using voice functionality to scan barcodes, it is expected to be used to perform other functions as well by 2020.

“We’re only just starting to tap into the possibilities of voice recognition technology,” Harper said. “We’ve seen it used for gaming and smartphone applications, but workplace integration is still relatively new.

“It’s early days, but I could see it one day being used for applications like handling stock counts, fulfilling orders and theft prevention.”

Newer technologies such as the Internet of Things, warehouse automation, big data and analytics will also see significant investment growth, with up to 72 per cent of respondents planning for added investment in these areas in the near future.

Wayne Harper is especially enthusiastic about what the future may hold. “The rise of the Internet of Things is one of the most exciting developments for future warehouses. Imagine a totally online-integrated warehouse, able to service the needs of customers at maximum efficiency – all thanks to a combination of smart-equipped devices.

“Warehousing is an incredibly exciting space to be in at the moment.”