Bringing Warehouses Of The Past Into The Future


Lior is cofounder and CEO of inVia Robotics with more than 20 years’ experience in internet networking, robotics and software development.

Warehouses have been around as far back as the 14th century, and they have been a constant stronghold for human invention and commerce. Built to last, the structure of a warehouse has mostly stayed the same, even when everything within it has changed seven centuries later. Retail distribution warehouses, for example, have been designed around the traditional model of brick-and-mortar stores. But as e-commerce has evolved the retail industry, the warehouse itself is due for a technological renovation.

In the last several years, consumers have shifted more of their shopping to online vs. in-store, leaving warehouses working harder, not smarter, to keep up with spending patterns. The unpredictability of online shopping has forced warehouses to maintain a wider variety of SKUs, creating complexity in how shelves are stocked. And even with stocked shelves, SKUs have been organized in a “traditional way” that supports bulk replenishment of the inventory in brick-and-mortar stores. There has to be a better way to solve this, which leads to the importance of software that digitizes operations and hardware that automates tasks. This is the much-needed bridge for warehouses to modernize.

The Role Of Software

Warehouses are often the size of football stadiums and have a constantly changing array of SKUs. Imagine the headache of navigating a library with books being moved around every week and books from the same genre being split throughout the building rather than being kept together. This chaotic reality is what the average warehouse worker faces daily, with only a map and an Excel spreadsheet to guide them. An entire warehouse of confused workers running into each other while looking for products is the perfect recipe for a bottleneck, slowdowns or both.

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Modernizing warehouses starts at the software level, which is relatively inexpensive and can be tailored to seamlessly fit into existing infrastructure. Unlike Excel spreadsheets, advanced software eliminates manual inventory oversight and provides AI-backed algorithms that optimize the placement of SKUs and the direction of labor required to retrieve and replenish them.

Going back to my earlier illustration about online shoppers buying random SKUs and quantities, today’s software allows warehouses to activate dynamic reslotting. With machine learning, automation can identify the optimal placement for specific SKUs in the warehouse and pair “hot” items together based on customer preferences and order histories. The system can even advise on how items popular around a certain season (back-to-school, holidays, etc.) should be prioritized with more prominent placements in a warehouse during a period of time. For workers picking orders, the software can help them speed up order fulfillment by anticipating and mitigating the congestion of traffic in warehouse aisles, providing them with direction on the most efficient routes to get to what they need and stay out of each other’s way.

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The Benefit Of Automating

While software can be employed to help people work more efficiently, adding hardware can help multiply their productivity. As explained in my previous article, the U.S. is going through a period of uncertainty and the ongoing labor shortage is getting worse. Warehouses are seeing modern workers leaving in droves because of antiquated infrastructures, workflows and tools. This comes at a particularly inconvenient time when they actually need to hire more labor because of the additional touches required when fulfilling eCommerce orders. Automation can keep warehouses agile by employing technology like mobile robots, each one of which can do the work of several people.

As illustrated above, warehouse workers are forced to navigate stadium-sized warehouses, picking items. In addition to climbing up ladders and grabbing heavy totes, workers have to walk between five to ten miles a day on hard concrete. As I’ve also highlighted in my other article, this constant walking eventually takes a toll on their physical and mental health. Some mobile automation helps decrease the amount of walking, lifting and pulling required but doesn’t entirely eliminate the wear and tear. To fully realize the productivity increases and relieve the burden of warehouse walking for workers, mobile robots need to be truly autonomous. They should provide a goods-to-person retrieval process, where they can pull—and put away—inventory without people. The powerful combination of intelligent software and mobile robots automates SKU storage and retrieval, letting people focus on packing out orders and quality control. This allows them to work like people—not like robots—using critical thinking skills vs. rote, repetitive actions. Workers now have the figurative and literal breathing room to focus on more complex tasks and cultivate their soft skills such as managing processes and making decisions. These skills are extremely valuable and, in this job market, provide workers greater job security or help them stand out when applying for new roles.

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The Next Chapter Of Warehouses

Now is a pivotal moment for the supply chain and logistics industries as it’s clear there’s no going back on eCommerce. Customers don’t want to go back to only shopping in stores—and why would they when they can order everything they need on their phones and have it delivered to their doorstep? To keep up and avoid further bottlenecks and delays, warehouses have to let go of their antiquated ways of operating.

In order to sustain their business and their workforce, warehouse operators should modernize the way they work. The right intelligent software can help them take that first step through digitization that will help them manage their SKU distribution and workflows. They can take modernization a step further with robotic task automation that multiplies the efforts of their labor by handling rote tasks and allowing them to focus on higher-order work.

Digital transformation is coming, and warehouses are the next frontier.


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