Manhattan’s Momentum conference is one of the premier supply chain technology events on the calendar. It is an opportunity for the gathering of supply chain leaders, technologists and Manhattan partners to learn about key trends in the market, new product developments and the frontiers of technology. The common thread through it all is the changing demands of today’s shoppers who want a seamless in-store consumer experience coupled with on-demand delivery which is transforming the retail landscape. In this environment, supply chains have to become agile, flexible and scalable to keep pace with driving the best consumer experience.
One of the long-standing challenges facing retailers is having the right product mix when consumers need it. Before the advent of online shopping, consumers were at the mercy of store level inventories. But now with the digitization of commerce, consumers have a variety of products available at the push of a button. In this environment, supply chain digitization provides an edge to retailers by virtualizing their total inventory, making it available to their storefronts, and then utilizing these same stores to fulfill online orders.
For instance, Reitmans, a Canadian apparel company, shared in a panel session how enabling real-time inventory availability allows consumers access to a seamless omni-channel experience. Instead of servicing all orders through one distribution center (DC), they are now able to use both store and DC inventory, effectively turning their stores into virtual micro DCs. This allows their supply chain to become nimbler in the face of a digitizing consumer experience and utilizes their valuable store real estate to maximize product availability while reducing the overall cost to serve.
Supply chains and specifically warehouses are designed to handle peak volume. This means that everything from the real estate, number of dock doors, workflow, and hiring plans are designed to handle the 4 to 8 week surge that most retailers experience. As a result, automation equipment within a DC is designed for peak volume, implying that for most of the year DCs will run at less than half their design capacity. With this in mind, robotics, the latest automation toolkit to enter the warehouses, are taking a different approach to flexibility, by creating a new category called Robots as a Service (RaaS).
In the power session “The Robot Revolution is Here”, Locus Robotics, Matthews Automation Systems, and Kindred discussed the future of robots within a DC. As robots become more ubiquitous in warehouse operations, robots are being designed and deployed to tackle the most labor intensive areas of the warehouse while providing retailers with the flexibility to match peak demand using innovative business models like Kindred’s price-per-pick model. These new models allow customers to only pay when the equipment is in use which defies the expectations of traditional capital equipment. Locus Robotics takes a similar approach and can scale up robot deployment based on customer needs during high volume periods. This will be important as DCs become smaller and more decentralized. Flexible automated solutions like RaaS will allow retailers to maintain a competitive edge.
Just as robots are now providing flexible demand-based automated solutions to retailers, the ability for these technologies to scale across multiple DCs while providing a uniform workflow is critical to its success. As discussed in our recent white paper Robotics in Fulfillment, there is a proliferation of different automation technologies and each optimizes a different but critical role within the warehouse. In this world of automation, there is a need for an easy integration point between operations management, warehouse management systems and the different and emerging new automation technologies. The newly announced Manhattan Automation Network provides a seamless interface to add these technologies to distribution center operations. This will allow retailers to scale technology deployments while maintaining the same technology backbone across multiple distribution centers.
As retail leaders consider designing supply chains of the future, they are stepping into an exciting world of technologies – like AI powered robotics - that can help their supply chains become agile, flexible and scalable. Hence, it is important for leaders to evaluate and deploy a portfolio of technologies to fit the operational needs of the business. Kindred’s robotic putwall SORT is an exciting development in this new era of automation and will be an important piece of equipment for supply chains of the future.