Supply chain resiliency from the data-driven warehouse

10 April 2024 | 15 Shares

Source: Zebra Technologies

Despite a very slight decline in size and number of warehousing facilities between 2022 and 2023, supply chain decision-makers expect both metrics to show net increases in the next four years. That’s one of the findings from Zebra 2023 Warehousing Vision Study, available here [PDF]. Yet the paper’s overarching message describes the industry’s desire to use technology to address the cost centers of existing operations and ensure a higher-capacity, more accurate future that aligns with rising customer expectations.

Warehouse automation

Source: Zebra Technologies

The constant headwinds currently prevalent in the industry need little explanation for readers of these pages, and the next few years will inevitably bring the types of supply chain disruptions that are sadly a fact of life in the sector – ocean piracy, war, and localised variation in economic conditions. But digitization, generally, and technology deployments in warehouses and distribution centers specifically have the capability to alleviate external negative influences, make companies more agile, and address many of the perennial problems that dog the sector. This article hopes to describe some of those solutions.

Perfect order profitability

Missed Sevice Level Agreements (SLAs) have varying causes, but errors on the warehouse floor rank high among the variables within the control of facility operators. Personnel must get technology and equipment training as they transition into areas best suited to on-the-spot decision-making. Luckily, reassignment to other areas and being given effective technology are very popular with employees. This could be a boon in a sector where staff turnover is too often accepted as the norm.

Fewer mistakes in general and higher efficiency from trained and equipped workers together mean better operations, of course. However, the secondary effects of automation also help produce a quicker ROI. Data metrics from the warehouse floor create objective, real-time pictures that inform managers’ decision processes. Additionally, investment in employees’ working conditions and careers makes the operator’s facilities an attractive destination for a prospective employee pool that’s often considered transitory.

A beacon of hope

While visions of automated warehousing systems bring to mind ranks of large robotized machines, many of the automation solutions that make the most significant differences to operations are much less eye-catching. Technologies like passive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), 5G networks, and space optimization technologies are often discrete and can be deployed with little impact on operations during rollout. Wearables are highly effective in this context, enabling the workforce and the technology they use to work as one unit. Additionally, static or handheld RFID beacon readers are a proven technology many years into maturity, and their use at scale, with a relatively modest outlay, brings immediate positive results.

As technologies, these are especially effective in addressing some of the more labor-intensive operational processes that are correspondingly the source of high cost. Many operators have invested in inventory management solutions emphasizing customer experience, with the interesting effect that (according to the responses that formed the Zebra Warehousing Vision Study) warehouse workers feel less informed about available stock than customers. Operationally-focused inventory technology, on the other hand, ensures warehouse operators and workers on the warehouse floor have constant and accurate knowledge about stock levels.

Warehouse automation

Source: Zebra Technologies

Like the equipment and software that can transform employees’ roles, static warehouse technology provides significant data from automated operations, in addition to keeping the point-of-sale customer fully informed as to availability. Digital models of real-time processes in multiple facilities can be created, using automated sensor data plus input from handheld tech. In turn, so-called ‘digital twins’ allow companies to virtually test new processes, experiment with variations on current processes, and devise new working methods that optimize space, and prioritize personnel efficiency and safety.

The same data-driven approach also brings value further up the decision-making chain, allowing strategic planning – whether to extend existing facilities or break new ground, for example – to take place based on proven data rather than educated guesswork.


If we assume that the next few years will present a series of unexpected events outside the control of individual supply chain operators, then it’s apparent that agility and speed of ability to change are of high importance. Technology in the form of hardware and malleable software does not guarantee agility, per se. But the ability to at least cushion the blow of negative events that will unfold in the future is the least that technology adopters in the sector can expect.

By reducing the impact of known cost centers and equipping people and physical facilities with systems overseen by industry-specific solutions, supply chains develop resilience for the future. Return on investment will take the form of better margins in several areas of operations (customer experience, HR, adherence to SLAs, and so on) in the short to medium term. However, the long-term return on investment will be the very existence of a long-term: that is, resilience and the ability to adapt to change to ensure a viable economic future.

About Zebra Technologies

The Zebra 2023 Warehousing Vision Study can be found here[PDF]. The company is the primary consultative partner for and supplier of the world’s best supply chain-focused technology. To find out more about what it can offer, please contact a representative near you.