Turning Pain into Gain for the Supply Chain
Recent months brought a sea change in consumer retail habits, with COVID-19 leading to a sustained rise in online shopping for everything from food to clothes and electronics.
Certainly, retailers who put their digital houses in order early were able to cater best to their customers and also won over new customers, while those who remained tied to a traditional bricks-and-mortar approach suffered, particularly during the lockdowns.
But what does all of this mean for the less glamorous parts of the supply chain such as warehousing? We have seen and heard much about the challenges presented by the black swan event of COVID-19. And just as we saw in retail, it is those warehousing providers who embraced digital transformation and in particular the cloud, who have been able to rise to the challenge most effectively.
In truth, COVID-19 has acted as a catalyst to trends that were already well underway in the warehousing sector, but it has done so with a force few could have reckoned with at the beginning of the year. Such unexpected events present various challenges to warehouses including capacity disruption, with many forced to cope with a sudden rise in volume and throughput for certain types of products such as masks and medical supplies and equally sudden declines in others.
Meanwhile, the abrupt rise in e-commerce also had a significant impact on warehouses. Indeed, from a warehousing perspective, the way e-commerce and traditional orders are handled is completely different, and this causes shifts in the size and frequency of warehouse orders. E-commerce orders are typically smaller, whereas traditional store fulfilment orders are larger but less frequent. The way warehouses process these in terms of the allocations and picking is completely different. Yet these are all changes that warehouses must take in their stride.
So how can warehouses adapt to these sudden changes, and how can they be better prepared for a world in which demand may be more sporadic? The answer is that warehouses need to digitally transform and place the cloud at the heart of their transformation plans. Increasingly, warehouse management systems (WMS), need to be automated and cloud-based, allowing for rapid and seamless upscaling and downscaling of computing capacity – as is all too often required during times of sudden change or close to large events that have the potential to cause capacity fluctuations.
Indeed, while traditional on-premise WMS usually involves costly and time-consuming provisioning of hardware and calibration of software, cloud-based WMS can be installed rapidly – in days rather than weeks or months – and also receives upgrades automatically, with no need for manual installation. All of this has the effect of helping warehouses raise their game, while also saving time and money.
There are other benefits too, especially for those warehouses that adopt a holistic cloud-based system from a single provider, rather than trying to operate a patchwork of competing systems that will never fully add up to the sum of their parts. Indeed, the ‘patchwork’ scenario often causes challenges with training staff, who must learn how to use various interfaces in addition to getting to grips with the type of idiosyncrasies that are all too often inherent in solutions stitched together from multiple vendors. In such situations, it’s quite common to see warehouses face challenges when those members of staff who are most familiar with the system are off-site, on holiday or sick leave, and there is nobody left to take up the mantle.
Conversely, by adopting a modern cloud-based WMS, with an intuitive interface, warehouses can simplify the technical aspects of their operations, which also helps with staff training and can allow a far larger pool of employees to be trained to use the system.
So what, if anything, is holding some warehouses back? In the past, there were some fears among warehouse owners and managers that cloud-based solutions could leave them vulnerable, for example in the event of an internet outage or a data breach. These fears were heightened for warehouses in a more remote location, where internet services once lacked the levels of redundancy required by industry. But today the situation is very different with world-class fibre-optic networks and 5G networks poised to transform mobile data services.
Similarly, cloud-based WMS can also help warehouses to improve their cybersecurity rather than leaving them more vulnerable. Public cloud providers have invested heavily in cybersecurity, and security is increasingly built into WMS systems. In addition, unified solutions can also help to reduce the type of vulnerabilities that can arise in more complex, multi-vendor solutions.
The warehousing sector was later than many verticals to embrace automation and the cloud, but in the current time of uncertainly and sudden change, the benefits are becoming difficult to ignore. Just as retailers who embraced digital transformation have proved most adaptable, so warehouses must also seek to leverage the latest digital and cloud solutions to ensure they remain at the vanguard of this essential industry.
RAIN RFID, IoT and AI are key to a proactive supply chain
Across supply chains around the world, we have seen leading companies rely heavily on technologies like AI and IoT during the pandemic. These digital solutions have enabled businesses to accurately capture and ultimately use their own first-party data to drive efficiencies and protect increasingly fragile bottom lines.
However, what is less commonly known is the increasing role of RAIN RFID technology in supporting IoT solutions. By using RAIN RFID to capture item data and then feed that data into AI systems, businesses can identify inefficiencies within the supply chain and make informed decisions.
What is RAIN RFID?
In short, RAIN RFID is a powerful IoT technology that enables itemised data collection. By applying small, battery-free tags to items, organisations can identify, locate, and authenticate each of those items, scanning up to thousands of items simultaneously with a variety of devices, including hand-held, fixed and wearable readers.
RAIN RFID solutions dramatically improve the operational capabilities of an organisation by ensuring they have exactly the right items, in the right quantities, at the right locations, at the right time. During the pandemic, RAIN RFID solutions have been key to limiting disruptions in retail and manufacturing supply chains, most notably by increasing inventory and asset visibility and improving the management and flow of goods.
Three ways RAIN RFID helps solve supply chain concerns
RAIN RFID is used to streamline processes, maintain real-time inventory, increase productivity, and help manage labour shortages. We see three key ways RAIN RFID helps solve supply chain concerns:
- Automate shipment verification: Today, significant labour is required for multiple, manual barcode scans during the shipment process. RAIN RFID tags can be read automatically without a direct line of sight, erasing the need for workers to pause, locate a barcode, and scan it. By using RAIN RFID, supply chain leaders can automate their shipment verification process and improve warehouse efficiencies by up to 25%.
- Deliver real-time visibility: Retail Systems Research says that 76% of supply chain survey respondents reported that real-time inventory visibility was their leading focus for improving performance. When supply chain managers lack information about the status of assets and shipments moving into and out of warehouses, confidence and productivity suffer. By using RAIN RFID, supply chain leaders gain real-time visibility into an item’s identity, usage, and location. With this information, they can quickly find inventory and assets, and reduce the cost of asset investments.
- Improve order accuracy: Today, companies rely on redundant manual checks to verify that the right cartons are loaded onto the correct pallets. By using RAIN RFID, supply chain leaders can automate pallet build verification to streamline the process and increase order accuracy. In fact, a recent study by Auburn University found that RAIN RFID can help an organisation achieve up to 100% order accuracy, eliminating claims costs and unhappy customers.
RAIN RFID can increase value of AI-powered analytics
In today’s AI-driven, rapid decision-making business environment, RAIN RFID is uniquely capable of making systems more effective. This is because it provides item identifiers for tracking and locating billions of items, from clothing to food, pharmaceuticals, tools, packages, pallets, and more.
It also works without line-of-sight, providing visibility into places and processes not previously available. The data provided by a RAIN RFID system can give AI-powered solutions the ability to see individual items throughout the supply chain, understand how the entire supply chain is functioning and identify which areas can be improved.
As companies accelerate digital transformation, we expect to see a rise in interconnected data as investments into new technologies and IoT surge. But as the volume of real-time and accurate data about the movement of goods rises, so too do the demands on operations teams to make sound business decisions quickly and with confidence, often using AI-powered systems that thrive on improved data to make better decisions.
As an example, over the past several years, Delta Airlines transformed its customer experience by investing in technology including real-time RAIN RFID bag tracking and automatic check-in via the Fly Delta mobile app. Delta is now leveraging this set of investments in their implementation of an AI-driven platform that analyses millions of operational data points, from luggage movement to aircraft positions to flight crew restrictions to airport conditions. This system simulates operating challenges and creates hypothetical scenarios that help Delta’s professionals make critical operational decisions that improve the overall customer experience.
The need to drive digital transformation rapidly during the pandemic has made supply chain and logistics professionals increasingly tech savvy. As we prepare for a post-pandemic era, companies’ increased know-how and awareness of solutions like RAIN RFID, IoT and AI will play a key role in evolving the industry’s approach to solving supply chain issues from reactive to proactive, setting them up for future success.