This time of year, eCommerce and distribution companies find themselves in a kind of “pilot purgatory,” on a quest to assess what next great technology may solve ongoing issues or optimize legacy facilities. Ultimately, you’re trying to solve for efficiency, cost-per-touch and cost-per-process. You’d like to move goods through your facilities with fewer errors and lower operational costs. Many organizations are attempting multiple pilots simultaneously on topics ranging from robotic depalletizing to parcel sorting and beyond – to see what nimble notions will rise to the top. All the concurrent technology experiments may be bombarding your physical plant with a barrage of materials, and there’s only so much room in your workspace or collective brain power to process it all.

Such skunkworks development, with multiple live scenarios to tweak or rework, can leave you with a pressing need to prioritize surefire systems for the new year. We’re exploring technologies and techniques to help customers build their facilities to last. And we’re placing bets on the trends that stand out as we look to 2024.

Why buy robots that are rapidly becoming obsolete when you can rent the latest versions?

Depending on your systems’ sophistication, you may have human staffers intermingled with three advanced AI machines: mobile robots that transport goods, robotic arms and cutting-edge walking humanoids; and you can now apply flexible models to account for both peak seasons and periods of lower demand. Material handling was previously point-to-point with conveyors and sortation, but now it involves picking up customized totes and taking them to a multitude of destinations, climbing stairs and so much more. What used to be an ergonomic challenge of minimum weightlifting and the like has now been eliminated by the rise of robotics.

Automating your facility is definitely not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition, but now your capital expenses can be significantly reduced through financial models borrowed from the software industry. Just as the software industry has pioneered Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), get ready for Robotics-as-a-Service. Brilliant robotics company engineers create the latest and greatest innovations in their industry but, undoubtedly, don’t understand fulfillment to the extent you do. The service model for RaaS creates more of an operational profit-and-loss center cost as opposed to an arduous outlay of capital.

The typical request is, “Tell me your problem, and I’ll propose a solution with a price and show you the traditional ROI.” But instead of having to own the equipment, you can leverage the newest robots on a rental basis. If you add more service lines, the RaaS providers can add more equipment. The same goes if you remove a capability; you aren’t stuck with idle robots.

This gives you all the flexibility you need without the upfront expenditure. You get technology to optimize your systems versus sifting through hours of presentations and anguishing over a capital expense that could very well be outmoded in a couple of years.

Flexibility comes with seasonality; it provides a greater ability to solve operational problems in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Plan your technology for peak seasons when throughput may be double or triple the norm, knowing you may be slowed significantly or even idle the rest of the year.

Will tiny warehouses help you make more money in 2024?

Expect this next trend to be all the rage as it matures. Micro-fulfillment is the use of small, localized storage and fulfillment facilities that are in close proximity to the end customer in order to improve delivery times and reduce shipping costs. To do this, you shrink your entire distribution down to the most actively ordered items per the data, and you can then move them to smaller spaces close to those who carry products the extra miles. Leveraging a micro-fulfillment center (MFC) is a way to maximize efficiency and feed consumers’ perpetual need for convenience. Think of a system reminiscent of the model of how Instacart gets groceries to consumers. The company’s staffers don’t run through the aisles of an actual brick and mortar store to find your chosen grocery goods, instead they visit a small warehouse, often co-located or adjacent to a shopping center or superstore, to grab and bag items for quick fulfillment.

To optimize this model, you need “first-in, first-out” inventory curation, plus an array of other features. A successful MFC should include quality standards including climate-controlled ecosystems that ensure the best shelf life and reduction of spoilage for items such as fresh produce, holding spaces called buffers which are often above a typical warehouse or in separate rooms, robots for product retrieval and shuttle systems to transport finished totes to the delivery person. Visioning software and AI can even eject totes to allow goods that don’t pass quality control standards, such as a bruised banana, to be replaced with satisfactory products.

We’re even seeing superstores provide direct-to-consumer towers for grabbing customized totes of goods without the need for vehicular delivery. Consumers simply buy items online and pickup pre-populated orders that have been loaded into a kiosk or vending machine.

Will the loading door of the future repurpose brick and mortar with micro-fulfillment in mind? Perhaps we’ll soon see 75 percent of a designated high-density high-square-foot space blocked off with a simple drive-through where people will pick up pre-sorted parcels.

How will increasingly intelligent technologies allow further agility?

While labor insufficiency may be the most obvious driver of a trend toward new forms of automation, there is so much more on the horizon in terms of data, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to help leverage the full power of material handling equipment (MHE) and to receive, store, dispatch and move goods within your warehouses. A wide array of technologies allow businesses a greater ability to introduce new SKUs with agility and the peace-of-mind that technology systems will be able to recognize them and optimize operations accordingly. For example, suppose your facility stocks and ships apparel, and you’ve just added a new line of heavy coats to meet consumer demand during a profoundly cold winter. Your technology may be adept at sorting and selecting the typical flow of goods but may not yet recognize the new coats. But even when your own system doesn’t recognize their SKUs, you can tap into shared online technology knowledge via AI that integrates it as an entity detectable by your visioning software. AI can help recognize shapes, sizes and textures, helping the assembly line properly integrate the new SKUs based on system-wide memory it has accumulated. Machine learning is multidimensional and can even train robotic arms and humanoids about how to physically pick up the heavy coats and properly package and transport added goods into totes or boxes. Best of all, you don’t have to halt your whole system to commence additional training; the results of machine learning can blend seamlessly into your ecosystem.

Are you ready to harness these trends?

We hope to rescue you from the garage development mentality of trying so many techniques on for size so you can truly organize for 2024 and beyond. Whether it’s rentable robots, new forms of micro-fulfillment expanding beyond traditional grocers or integrating your visioning technologies with new intelligent and iterative techniques, we can join you in assessing what strategies will help you go the distance for years to come. Let’s get prepared for how emerging trends can bring you the efficiency, lower operational costs and profit you wish. Please contact us to schedule a walk-through and assess your needs.