The Fourth Industrial Revolution is coming and promising a radical change in all industries, including retail, and the supply chain technologies required to support inventory management that is increasingly driven by customer demand for faster delivery. According to Gartner, about 6.4 billion things were connected in 2016. By 2020 there will be over 21 billion connected devices sharing data and streaming it to cloud databases all the time. That massive interconnection and data collection is the true revolution known as the Internet of Things(IoT), the driver of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
IoT is the interconnection of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other elements, integrated with electronics, computer programs, sensors, actuators, and wireless Internet network capabilities in a way that allows these objects to collect and exchange data. Contrary to popular belief, IoT's promise is not just about your alarm clock or your house knowing when you go out. It's about connecting things that we do not associate with information technology, creating a huge treasure trove of data and in the case of inventory management, enabling the creation of smart warehouses.
What is a smart warehouse?
More than just a place to store in-transit inventory, a "smart warehouse" can be a hub where technology can be applied to increase efficiency and speed throughout the entire supply chain of a product. IoT devices such as wearables on workers, sensors on pallets, and radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags on individual products, are some examples that enable warehouse managers to track the exact location and report on supply-chain progress for any product at any time, profoundly changing logistics management. In the warehouse, IoT devices are being used for tracking items, receiving them, reporting put-away locations, cycle counting, picking reports, and restocking notifications. Adopting these technologies improves visibility across the entire supply chain, consequently lowering costs and increasing operational efficiency.
The Zebra Technologies 2020 Warehouse Vision Study found that 70% of companies, driven by the push to deliver products faster to consumers, are significantly increasing investment in systems and technologies that support smart warehouses. Cisco, in its Adoption of IoT for Warehouse Management report, explains how global stock visibility, from contract manufacturers to customers can provide product managers the data necessary to react to supply-chain disruptions or increased product demands quickly and effectively, minimizing impact to customers and the company's revenue and profits.
Databases and Services
Both Zebra and Cisco in their reports emphasize that the biggest promise of IoT in future supply chain logistics improvements is in-transit visibility services. The many players and multiple geographical locations in a logistics ecosystem; manufacturer, suppliers, warehouses, retail locations, and customers, require a real-time data stream feeding an easy to access database that can be queried to answer questions about product whereabouts and other specifications. Databases can also be accessed by workers using web-based cubing software to create load plans for pallets, trucks, or sea containers. Those tools provide analysis with 3-D capability, step-by-step loading instructions, tracking reports, and collaboration interfaces to share the plan with customers or co-workers.
The key to all-the-time visibility are the IoT devices, attached to products, pallets, warehouse workers, trucks, ships, and customer delivery services, that can wirelessly access the Internet cloud providing real-time identity, location, and other tracking information. With increased intelligence and capabilities these devices can also stream data about weather and traffic conditions, driver-specific patterns, and estimated arrival time at the designated locations. This allows managers, marketers, and retailers, to make data-driven fact-based decisions for increased productivity, lower costs and increased customer satisfaction, therefore moving the inventory management processes from reactive to proactive by offering accurate and on-time information before a situation escalates into a chain of events from which there could be no recovery.
An automated warehouse system ties everything together; IoT devices, data collection, warehouse workers performance, and cubing services, enabling the monitoring and controlling of the devices roaming around, therefore allowing warehouse managers to gather key performance indicators to better manage inventory distribution and fulfillment operations from any location they wish to be in.