Emerging technologies have the potential to shape the future of omnichannel retail and order fulfilment, explains Ed Turner, CIO, Asendia UK in this article. 

Retailers reliant on parcel delivery services to keep their e-commerce divisions performing smoothly are right to be anxious just now. At a time when shoppers want ever-faster deliveries, postal and delivery firms are finding it hard to compete in a tough market.

Higher energy and freight costs, and staff shortages are affecting everyone in the sector. So, what’s the best way to maintain service levels and efficiency, without significantly raising prices for retailers’ delivery services?

In a word, automation. It’s nothing new, but in the next few years, I believe investment in automated processes in fulfilment centres and warehouses will need to massively scale up, so that retailers can keep pace with customer demand for fast, reliable deliveries.

Future-proofing warehouses

I’ve seen first-hand how robotic technology can streamline processes in the e-commerce warehouse, while boosting customer service levels. There’s amazing innovation in this space around AI and the use of data analytics and machine learning to drive efficiency. There are countless AR and VR developments, although these seem not to be taking off as dramatically as was envisaged a couple of years ago.

For me, automation is the tech that will give retailers – and the logistics partners they rely upon so heavily – competitive edge in the coming decade. At Asendia UK we have just implemented six robotic arms capable of over-labelling 7,200 parcels an hour, which will vastly speed up a very manual process and free up operational colleagues for other tasks. The robots are coupled with an automated parcel sorter that will scan, weigh and sort the parcels to all global locations.

Automation doesn’t come cheap. This tech overhaul of our facility at Heathrow cost £2.5m, but like so many players in the market today, Asendia felt this to be an essential upgrade, that will prepare us, and our retail clients, for future growth. Ultimately, the streamlined processing of parcels for international shipping will help retailers reach shoppers around the world much faster.

Why automate?

As e-commerce has grown exponentially, there can be challenges in warehouses when manual work becomes too challenging, due to the sheer volume of parcels that need to be processed. For example, Black Friday inevitably results in a surge in parcels being posted out to customers. Such seasonal shopping bonanzas create huge spikes in demand for services at e-commerce fulfilment and distribution sites.

With automation comes the ability to scale volumes, offer flexible services, provide data, and release employees from difficult, manual work. Retailers, many of whom have fast-growing e-commerce audiences around the world, want to benefit directly from seeing their parcels pass through facilities faster than ever. There are also labour cost efficiencies in the long-term.

By introducing different robotic and automated solutions it’s possible to rationalise storage space, as well as accelerate the lead time between ordering and delivery. You’re introducing smoother, safer operations overall, often with a more logical flow of parcels through the building.

Offering flexibility

When committing to warehouse automation, specialist logistics companies must be reactive and able to offer flexibility in fulfilment needs.

The big challenge with parcel processing automation is designing and developing robotic functionality that can handle a plethora of different sized boxes and bags, as well as mixed sizes of pallets, boxes and containers where the parcels are placed ready for shipping. This is particularly the case with warehouses processing parcels from many different retailers and brands, all of which will have different packaging, labels, sizing and customer care needs.

Data systems also need to integrate, both with the retail client, and with a host of shipping partners, in our case air freight companies for onward transportation.

If you can embed reliable technology that supports all these anomalies, it’s possible to meet the needs of retail sellers, and help them hit growth and speed-of-delivery targets.

Tomorrow is faster

Throughout the retail supply chain, robotic technology is helping to take the strain. As the technology beds in, proactive warehouse teams are discovering ways to speed up the flow of parcels even further. Anyone working in the e-commerce logistics sector will be delighted to see pressure at peak eased by reliable robots. And with all the processing benefits and the faster efficiencies, this incredible technology is what will differentiate us in our industry in the years to come.

September 2023 issue

2023 A1 Buyers Guide