Warehouses aren’t what they used to be. And that’s good news for B2B companies that must process complex orders.
As the capabilities of smart devices improve and Millennials replace Baby Boomers in the workforce, today’s warehouses actually look more like smart homes. Many of today’s leading logistics companies embrace consumer-based technology and communication styles to manage inventory, track shipments, predict staffing needs and more.
For instance, a warehouse in Hong Kong uses emojis to categorize shipments, indicating what’s inside each box and where it’s going. Workers simply look for the emoji printed on the box, and handle the package accordingly. Other companies use iPad apps or voice-controlled devices to provide workers with familiar, user-friendly systems.
Regardless of the technology used, the key to success is for logistics businesses to introduce consumer-facing technologies into the workplace to keep workers comfortable and productive. Apple, Google, Amazon.com and other tech giants have completely revolutionized the way consumers communicate not only with each other, but also with brands. There’s no reason why these innovations should not make their way into business-to-business settings.
The ultimate goal of this type of digitization is to provide a frictionless experience for the end customer. Today, that means digital self-service, fast shipping and order transparency. But to successfully embrace technology innovations in a warehouse, you need to transform digitally.
The call for digital transformation
The implementation of new technology requires profound, organization-wide change. Suppose you want to bring iPads into your warehouses to improve efficiency and communication among warehouse workers. You can’t accomplish this until your systems are capable of integrating with Apple operating systems and your data is housed in a centralized location.
The same lesson applies to the implementation of any new technology. You can’t innovate if you’re relying on outdated back-end systems for managing inventory and other operations, siloed data and inefficient processes. To stay relevant long term, you need to abandon the status quo—and you need to do it now.
But while digital transformation is crucial, it’s certainly no easy feat. Digital transformation happens in several layers:
- Gain executive buy-in: The first, and arguably most difficult layer of digital transformation, is getting executives on board. Most of the time, executives who feel comfortable with the current state of their businesses feel no need to change. But when things are good, it’s often a sign you need to keep moving forward. To convince executives to change, you have to demonstrate return on investment. This could mean taking a look at your workforce and how technology can help attract top young talent. Or show them how more efficient warehouse processes might reduce order errors, improve fulfillment speed and your bottom line.
- Build a solid infrastructure: To ensure having an integrated warehouse technology system that works well, you need to first build the infrastructure to support it. B2B companies often facilitate complex orders that require more advanced algorithms and technology to not only receive the orders, but also enable fulfillment and delivery. So, before considering new warehouse tools, first consider back-end improvements like cloud-based technology that can quickly adapt to changing customer needs. For example, instead of investing in a complicated new conveyor system, make sure your product development system can support CAD (computer-aided design) files for easy engineer access.
- Implement and train: Technology innovation involves much more than just buying iPads and hoping for immediate bottom-line results. A successful technology overhaul requires a cultural change. That means training in new technology systems and business processes for employees at all levels, and leaders who are vocal about the positive outcomes the new systems will bring.
Even after a successful technology implementation, remember that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Digital transformation isn’t a one-time deal—it’s an ongoing process that enables your company to keep up with the rate of innovation.
Digital transformation never ends
Digital transformation is never over. Consider the digital evolution in the ‘80s. Back then, businesses considered the transfer of paper files to floppy disks a success. Fast forward to the 2000s when businesses first moved data to the cloud. Today, businesses fully automate warehouses with connected devices, and a decade from now, warehouse handlers could be working side-by-side with robots.
Regardless of where technology takes us, we need to be ready. Don’t just adapt your systems and infrastructure to handle what’s available now—adapt to handle what’s next. Cloud-based systems that allow for easy iterations are a start. By using systems that you don’t host, you don’t have to worry about iterating for new business situations, and strong technology partners can keep these tools up to date so you aren’t using outdated technology. But you also need to keep a close eye on innovation. Apple and other major tech companies constantly announce new consumer-facing technologies and tools, and it’s up to you to determine how your business can best use them.
If you’re a logistics company hoping to gain a competitive edge, embracing new technology to cater to younger employees and improve efficiency in the warehouse might be the answer. But before diving in, build a strategic digital transformation plan to ensure you maximize the return on your investment.
Mark Bartlett is chief experience officer of FPX, a provider of online configure-price-quote technology and related products and services. Prior to FPX, he guided customer experience and commerce practices for such digital agencies as IconNicholson (Digitas LBi), Sapient and Razorfish. (Sapient and Razorfish have since merged into SapientRazorfish.)