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Lights-Out Warehouse – Sooner or Gradual?

Blog: NASSCOM Official Blog

Traditional warehouses or distribution centres are undergoing a massive transformation. The warehouse is a significant ecosystem. Its interconnected technologies help to drive automation and an unperturbed distribution. However, this is the time we are entering the Industry 4.0, embracing automation and adoption of advanced technologies; So why the warehouse system should be out of the adoption value chain! The warehouse is evolving to meet the growing pressures applied to it further up the chain. This will be achieved by integrating the digital and the physical – improving productivity in the process. The use of advanced, connected technologies in distribution centres is not new, previously these technologies were mainly limited to automated systems used to increase material-handling productivity. The lack of adaptability across warehouse system meant a great deal of customisation, programming and skilled labour to ensure smooth functioning and react to changing demands. Beyond process of design thinking and efficient production system, the Industry 4.0 technologies can also impact the way finished goods are moved, stored and distributed.

Industry 4.0 enabling Warehouse Management System – Industry 4.0 technologies enable warehousing facilities to adapt to significant changes in their business. Industry 4.0 technologies can gradually pave the way for the automated distribution centres, to adapt to their environment and tackle tasks more efficiently along with human intervention. Connected tech which comprises of low-cost sensors, computer vision, augmented reality (AR), Internet of Things (IoT) devices, robotics and high-performance computing are all used to enhance automation with few of the foundational pillars like analytics, cloud, ICT services. Automation has long provided cost-effective solutions for meeting market needs, such as space savings and improved productivity. However, automation in warehouse has been limited, allowing only for similar products and handling, requiring a set format or standardisation. As the evolving needs of these distribution centres move beyond the capabilities of simple automation, the risks of damage expiry, slow processing and other productivity challenges grow.

Moving from automation to “Smart” – Many new Industry 4.0 driven technological advancements have helped a step-forward from automation to “Smart”. Lights-out warehouse is one such example. The concept of a lights-out warehouse is not new, but recent innovations including the rise of automation have put this idea back on the map for many distribution centres. A lights-out warehouse is a warehouse or distribution centre that runs on machines with no human workers present. Lights-out doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing ordeal for warehouses and other facilities. The types of workplaces that use the lights-out method the most are cold storage facilities and freezer warehouses, typically in the food and beverage and pharmaceuticals sectors. People cannot work in such harsh conditions like below zero temperatures. Replacing humans with automation eliminates the need for their presence.

However, this concept comes with a handful of challenges. For example, in a facility without people, it is much harder to make repairs to products. The other immediate task is addressing cost. Employers need to balance the cost of automating their facilities with the value of their goods, just because automation may seem to reduce labour costs and increase productivity, it doesn’t mean the concept is financially viable enough for immediate implementation.

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