How Warehouse Tech is Transforming Retail

18th May 2016

A warehouse prototype
The old adages of warehouse storage: label clearly, stack heavy to light, keep tidy. None of those matter any more because warehouse technology is changing. It has no choice. The only way warehouses can keep up with the speed of online sales is by evolving, embracing innovations that make things faster and more reliable.

Here are some of the ways warehouses all over the world are changing in diverse and exciting ways.

Industries are creating custom warehouses

Much of recent warehouse innovation has been industry-specific. The beverage industry, for example, has seen a huge number of changes to warehouse practice and the introduction of new warehouse technology. Orbis and Buckhorn have both developed hygienic, reusable packaging to make the transportation of beverages from warehouse to van to retailer smoother and quicker than ever.

French fashion retailer Cassis doubled warehouse productivity thanks to the integration of ‘voice picking’. Voice picking is a technology developed by ZetesMedea that lets warehouse pickers use their voices to find items.

Clothing is particularly hard to pick in a warehouse thanks to the multiple sizes and colours items are available in. Voice picking is an ingenious way to get around this problem as it allows pickers to find specific items without having to look through droves of clothes.

Online-only supermarket Ocado has a technology division that works on all kinds of projects. One of its areas of expertise is building warehouse robots. Ocado’s chief technology officer likens their automated warehouse system to a scene from Monsters, Inc. The scene in question is one in which hundreds of doors move around the building on a conveyer belt. Though perhaps a bit less reality-defying, there is no doubt this automation makes their process a lot faster.

Warehouse automation is taking off in warehouses in every industry – not just in food. And the example of warehouse automation on the largest scale was developed by a technology company called Kiva Systems, now better known as Amazon Robotics.

Tech-driven large-scale warehouse solutions

Kiva Systems’ warehouse automation technology is the brainchild and lifelong passion project of founder and CEO Mick Mountz. When Mountz was at school, he tried to invent a machine that would do his homework for him. It was a similar desire to disrupt established practices with innovation that drove Mountz to revolutionise the way warehouses work. Mountz talks about how he founded Kiva robots in this podcast for NPR.

Mountz looked at the way warehouses worked in the late 90s – multiple conveyors, forklifts, workers walking from location to location grabbing items – and decided there had to be a way to do this better: robots.

Mountz’s robots are designed to do the work of a conveyor belt, a forklift, and pickers. Kiva robots are small, go-kart-like robots that move at walking pace around the warehouse floor. But because there are so many of them constantly moving, they work a lot faster than humans. They’re also stronger. When a worker needs something from the warehouse, a robot picks up an entire shelving unit, drives it over to them, and the worker picks out the item and packs it up to be shipped.

By replacing the middleman with a ‘middlerobot’, Mountz increased warehouse productivity by an unprecedented amount. Kiva sold robots to several warehouse partners until the company was bought by Amazon for $775 million in 2012. Since then, Kiva has worked exclusively for Amazon under the name ‘Amazon Robotics’. Mountz is still with the company, but they have said very little publicly in the past four years.

Still, the company’s success speaks for itself. Amazon’s purchase of this disruptive warehouse technology shows just how important warehouse automation is becoming for the world’s biggest retailers.