A question that is being constantly asked at the e-commerce fulfillment sector in the US is, how does the rapid changing fulfillment requirements impacting warehouse operations? “They are triggering widespread changes in everything from facility footprints to long-standing value-chain partnerships”, writes Clint Reiser, Director - Supply Chain Research at ARC Advisory Group in a white paper.According to Reiser, if someone is in the business of order fulfillment at least for ten years, they might have witnessed the major transformation in their warehouses’ picking patterns. Many Direct-to-Consumers (DC) in the retail sector were collecting far fewer pallets or cases and a lot more individual items or pieces over the last 15 years, says Reiser.Driving TrendFor the question as to what is exactly triggering this trend, the answer is e-commerce and the consequent increase in CD shipping. The growth of e-commerce shows no sign of slowing. Prior research by ARC Advisory Group and its sister publication DC Velocity revealed that firms expect an average of 40% growth in online sales over the next five years. Meanwhile, Amazon, the 800-pound gorilla in the market, has achieved annual North American growth of over 20% in each of the last five years, says Reiser.Still, many more questions have been asked such as what is the market profile of today’s operations? In what ways are the demands on warehouses changing? Perhaps more importantly, what are practitioners doing today and what are their plans to meet future demand and remain competitive?
SurveyTo get the right perception about the fulfillment environment, ARC Advisory Group and DC Velocity jointly conducted a survey among practitioners, inquiring about facilities, market pressures, operations, and investment priorities. What are more the researchers included a time-phase element to obtain insight into the likely progression from past to present to future? Interestingly, but not surprisingly, when it came to software, warehouse labor management systems were the top choice, says the study.E-commerce fulfillment is labor intensive and costly, as these orders are generally small, with items often stored in different parts of the facility, and that require additional steps such as packaging and labeling. WMS was the second most frequently selected investment choice, which is unsurprising given its role as the backbone of warehouse operations, says the report.Warehouse AutomationWhen it comes to warehouse automation options, conveyors/sortation is the most popular investment choice, followed by pick to light/put to light. The responses for conveyors likely reflect the high level of conveyor/sortation use in North America, as against Europe.The study further believes that the interest in pick/put to light reflects a desire to gain efficiencies in e-commerce fulfillment operations. Furthermore, the results corroborate the view that autonomous mobile robotics (AMR) in the warehouse has moved from the concept phase to practical consideration, as 15% of respondents selected AMR as an investment priority for the next three years.TakeawaysAccording to Reiser, the customer expectations and competition from e-commerce are driving widespread changes to warehouse and distribution operations. Direct-to-consumer growth is not only affecting retailers, but also manufacturers, wholesalers, and 3PLs. Warehouses and warehouse fulfillment operations are increasingly playing a greater role in commerce due to disintermediation and a reduction in retail sales through stores. On top of that, the relationship between retailers and upstream partners is changing, as wholesalers have increased their presence in retail and retailers have pushed direct-to-consumer responsibilities back onto their suppliers. As a result, warehouse footprints are expanding, responsiveness and adaptability have become more important, parcel shipping has grown, and labor efficiency remains as important as ever, the study pointed out.