Understanding the Warehouse Digitalization
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Understanding the Warehouse Digitalization

Eric Pawlowski, Director of Infrastructure and Architecture, The Tile Shop
Eric Pawlowski, Director of Infrastructure and Architecture, The Tile Shop

Eric Pawlowski, Director of Infrastructure and Architecture, The Tile Shop

When we think about retail technology, we immediately think about the different technology that we encounter everyday at our local gas station, grocery store, or specialty retailer at the mall. Today I am here to talk to you about what it takes behind the scenes to get the goods that we each purchase every day to you, as well as how our favorite retailers keep those shelves stocked. My topic today will be focused on the technology that is used in the various warehouse and distribution centers that retailers so very much depend on. I have spent a good chunk of the last 8 months updating the infrastructure in our main distribution centers and have worked alongside workers in each of these facilities, and can tell you firsthand the technology is critical to efficient performance.

Warehouses and distribution centers are fast-paced environments that have tight deadlines. Product needs to be unloaded, inventoried, stored, assembled on a pallet, and finally loaded on trucks. A reliable local area network, along with stable internet connectivity, is the backbone of the technology. This allows for many different devices to connect to the internet and warehouse applications. WI-FI is probably the most important piece of infrastructure, as most of the devices used, including tablets, handheld scanning devices, and mobile printers are designed to travel throughout the potentially hundreds of thousands of square feet that these buildings are comprised of. These devices need to be able to connect to access points seamlessly as they navigate the many rows of racks filled with product. Ensuring great Wi-Fi coverage is a necessity, as well as a Wi-Fi application that can handle the many, many requests as devices connect to APs all over the building. Devices that disconnect from Wi-Fi and either don’t reconnect or take an extra-long time to connect are very problematic, not to mention frustrating to the those in the warehouse.

Once a reliable network, with up-to-date network gear has been established, you can now deploy the many varying devices in the warehouse. Tablets mounted to order pickers and forklifts guide the drivers to the proper bin locations for the product either being stored or picked. ERP applications inform the drivers of the product, amounts, and locations of the product needed. When the worker arrives at the location, the tablets allow them to scan the barcodes, enter the amount of product, which then in turn update inventory, thus taking that inventory from stock to an order, in real time.

“A reliable local area network, along with stable internet connectivity, is the backbone of the technology”

Once product is offloaded in either the receiving or shipping areas, staff use handheld scanning devices to scan product that is being assembled on a pallet for shipping or to be entered into inventory and stored in the proper bin locations. The ability of this staff to efficiently use the handheld equipment is critical. The ERP application must seamlessly integrate with the device. This device cannot be clumsy or complicated to use. Short cut key for highly used functions is the staff’s best friend. A mobile printing solution, such as receipt printers you see when returning a rentalcar, willreally enhance the efficiency of the staff by allowing them to print labels and other tags, without having to run to a stationary printer.

There are several other technologies you will find in a warehouse. Along with regular workstations in offices, you can find large video displays, giving the crew visibility to their workflow, mechanized assembly lines that weigh and wrap pallets, as well as cameras that record activity. Cameras and recording software are in place for safety and loss prevention. Most video that is reviewed is typically around some form of accident, an employee with a safety violation, or a truck damaging a loading dock. Software that can store and index video is critical. More advanced technologies, such as RFID, artificial intelligence, and many forms of robotic technology are now being utilized in the warehouses as well.

The last topic to cover for today is care and maintenance of the technology. Always get the warranty and maintenance. These devices are going to get beat up. The environment can be hard on the physical devices. They get dropped on concrete floors, constantly bumped, and jostled around on a forklift. Taking care of the devices will ensure a long, useful life; a rugged case and a little TLC can go a long way.Ensure any peripherals that are connected are either wireless (Bluetooth) or the cable connections are tight with nothing loose to shake. This is how pins wear out and equipment starts tofail. Updates and patches keep operating systems working well and securely. These are valuable lessons I have learned recently.

Most warehouses run seven days a week.Keeping the technology working at peak efficiency will make your job as CIO or IT director much easier.

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