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What’s trendy in the business of warehousing

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. — New technology and online shopping were hot topics during the “Emerging Trends in Warehousing and Logistics” session at the annual Surface Transportation Summit that took place yesterday at the Mississauga Convention Centre.

Three esteemed panelists went up to the mic and spoke about what’s new in the warehousing side of things and they had a lot to say about where technology is taking them.

First up was Alan Taliaferro, director, supply chain management, retail industry, logistics and distribution at Deloitte. He kicked off the session by discussing the value of e-commerce today.

“Almost all the calls we’re getting today on warehouse design or changeovers and most of these new warehousing projects that we’re doing are around e-commerce,” he said.  “The reason is regular sales or brick-and-mortar retail sales for most chains are very mature and are flat. But e-commerce sales are growing every year at double digits. This is where the money is. This is where retailers are making investments. E-commerce is not an experience anymore.”

Canadian companies have finally gotten then message and are investing in e-commerce, he added. Taliaferro did warn that this rise does increase the strain put on the e-commerce commercial centres, but that more companies are looking to fix that through other means.

“If you’re out of stock and absolutely have to save that order, then ship it from the store because you don’t want to lose that customer, and you may end up marking down that product further along in the season,” he said. “We see ship from store coming for things like save the sale and coming for things like next day delivery, because the e-commerce fulfillment centre is too far away. Retailers are not going to see double digits in store. They have to make investments in e-commerce in order to keep that ball rolling.”

Switching gears to offshoring, Taliaferro said that in terms of doing business, labour is not a huge cost anymore and that having machines overseas is no longer as risky as one may think.

“If you go to China, you don’t see a bunch of people labouring to produce goods, you see high-efficiency machines brought in form Germany,” he said. “Of course, there’s always risk involved in going outside the borders. That risk is small, There is not that much labour anymore in manufacturing, and because of that, it doesn’t matter much where we locate the machines.”

Next up at the mic as Greg Laurin, president of Conestoga Cold Storage who focused his talk on automated warehouses and new techonology he believes are major trends in the industry.

Though Laurin said his company has a mix of both conventional and automated warehouses, they use and focus on the automated warehouses because how efficient they are.

“We are staying in trend,” he said on the company’s decision to move towards automation. “We do it primarily from an efficiency standpoint – it reduces labour.  In our business it’s a little easier to justify we have because -18 degrees Celsius operating temperatures and we operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s very difficult to find people who want to stick around. So automation is really helping.”

Laurin contested that automation will go a very long way for the warehousing business saying that new technology like Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) which are most often adopted and seen in Europe, should be welcomed more so in North America.

“What they’ll do is the load and unload product right from conveyer lines,” he said of AGVs.  “And they’re getting to the point where they can load and unload trailers all by themselves. They’ve come a long way. That’s really an important aspect. I’ve seen a facility that had 50 of these AGVs, running like ants all over, picking product up and moving it around. You don’t have the people issues.  They may be slower, but you can add more. They are very ruthless in their efficiencies.”

Keeping to the new technology trend, Jason Sonnbichler, vice-president, business development, supply chain solutions, Ryder SCS, spoke next about the robotic cells in the company’s Toronto warehouse.

He kicked off his speech with a clip from I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel have to wrap candy coming at them on a conveyor belt at a fast pace for their demanding boss. Of course, they botch the whole job and candy ends up in their mouths and down their shirts because they can’t keep up.

“I wanted to show everyone where things can go wrong if you don’t have that cohesion and alignment internally,” said Sonnbichler of his view of the clip’s moral.

The clip tied in nicely to his story of his company’s cohesion with an unnamed tobacco company who worked with them and supported the addition of robotic cells in its Toronto location.

“It’s been highly successful, to the point where we’re thinking about putting them in Calgary next,” he said.

The audience got to have a look at the robots in action and it was very cool watching eight robotic arms pick and choose which cigarettes go in which box.

“As you can see, the arm is going right down into the box,” narrated Sonnbichler. “It’s actually like a giant tetris game, it’s got cubing software where it recognizes the dynamics of each carton size and it is building the ultimate finished outbound shipping carton, if you will. This has been a wonderful innovation.”

Sonia Straface

Sonia Straface

Sonia Straface is the associate editor of Truck News and Truck West magazines. She graduated from Ryerson University's journalism program in 2013 and enjoys writing about health and wellness and HR issues surrounding the transportation industry. Follow her on Twitter: @SoniaStraface.
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