Imagine asking a picking robot in any language you want for a product on a shelf 40 feet above the warehouse floor. Sound too futuristic? Think again — this kind of technology and others are currently making their way into a warehouse near you.
Multilingual voice controls, the Internet of Things (IoT) and emerging technologies are streamlining the modern warehouse amidst a climate of rising costs, according to our new JLL report, Industrial Warehouse of the Future. Additionally, as operators introduce more of these efficient warehouse technologies, many are also incorporating quality-of-life enhancements to counteract labor shortages.
With warehouse vacancy rates below 3 percent in the top logistics markets, industrial developers are reconsidering warehouse design to help e-commerce distribution companies and other users shrink their supply chain footprints. Despite the 239.1 million square feet of warehouse space under construction in the second quarter of 2018 — a 3.7 percent increase from the previous quarter — development can’t always keep up with the demand for facilities.
The lack of prime developable land, along with the increased demand for last-mile distribution facilities, is making small and mid-sized buildings the industry norm, according to JLL research. Approximately 60 percent of new warehouse facilities are in the 50,000- to 250,000-square-foot range.
Here are nine of the most promising features we’re anticipating will make the largest impact on warehouse efficiency:
1) Wireless technology and real-time inventory tracking: Warehouse operators are adopting new wireless technologies to build efficiency into every corner of the warehouse. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags attached to each inventory item can transmit real-time data between the warehouse floor and inventory management applications, allowing warehouse teams to track inventory on mobile devices from the moment it arrives.
2) A hyper-connected facility: In a hyper-connected warehouse, operating systems are laid out in a highly advanced matrix to accommodate the growing mix of technologies. Today’s tech-enabled warehouses hold bandwidth for technologies like barcoding, IoT, RFID scanning, GPS, load optimization and future technology innovations that may emerge. With this tech in place, logistics managers’ jobs are easy.
3) The new forklift: Forklifts, always a fixture of warehouses, are more connected than ever. IoT technologies can connect a warehouse operator’s forklifts with their enterprise resource planning system and workers across the warehouse, shaving operations time. Some forklift manufacturers are incorporating alternative fuel systems and energy-efficient engines to reduce energy costs.
4) Growing clear heights: To optimize warehouse utilization, yesterday’s 24- to 26-foot ceiling height has risen to the 36- to 40-foot range today. One reason is that automated picking technology can easily reach even the highest shelves. Another is that today’s lighting systems can efficiently illuminate tall spaces. Yet a third factor is the availability of fire-suppression technologies that can reach higher ceilings.
5) Picking tech, picking up speed: Multilingual voice-picking, augmented reality and specialized robots are just three of the revolutionary technologies changing picking practices. These technologies enable logistics operators to expand their labor pools by overcoming language barriers and accommodating a range of skillsets.
6) Sustainability, making strides: Alternative energy and energy efficiency are no longer optional as more automation demands more power. Solar panels, LED lighting, cool-roof systems, thermal glass, clerestory windows and other new green materials and innovations are leading warehouses into a new age.
7) Human-centric design: As labor shortages rise in many markets, quality of life in the warehouse is growing more important. New features such as effective lighting, air quality sensors and temperature control are more common as design becomes more human-focused. Improving the working environment not only enhances employee health, but also reduces employee turnover and facilities risks.
8) When it comes to land, flexibility is the name of the game: Industrial tenants are demanding flexibility in response to highly variable business conditions. Tenants want the option to add land and space if additional needs arise, like a seasonal rush. “Flex land” could be deployed for needs such as additional truck storage or warehouse expansion.
9) Super-flat to sloped floors: The super-flat floor has long been the norm in warehouses. Although many warehouse operators continue to require exceptionally flat floors for highly precise robotic picking and racking technology, sloped floors are appearing to accommodate technologies for moving inbound and outbound shipments.
Technology is transforming every aspect of the warehouse — from tracking inventory to product picking — to get goods in and out as quickly and cost effectively as possible. As operators face rising costs and a shrinking inventory of prime land, the continued demand for space and labor is spurring innovation that now defines how warehouses are being built.
As a managing director, Rick Steger leads JLL’s Industrial Project Management group in the central United States. Rick has deep experience in managing many types of complex industrial development projects, including modern distribution centers, multi-temperature distribution centers, food production facilities, chemical processing plants, power generation, light and heavy manufacturing, maintenance facilities, vehicle test and R&D. He also has experience in sports venues and corporate offices.