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It's an interesting time for those making decisions about warehouse technology since automated systems have emerged that can dramatically improve productivity, efficiency and space utilization.

Will today’s investments be made obsolete by future developments?

In the case of warehouse automation, the technology has matured significantly in the last three years and there are solid examples of successful deployments in almost every industry. In some industries, such as e-commerce, waiting simply isn’t an option. Customers are demanding faster delivery while the number of product SKUs is making fulfillment more complex and the pressure on costs is increasing. Plus, automation providers have largely moved away from closed, proprietary systems that increase the risk of obsolescence.

Here are four things to look for in warehouse automation technology to ensure the systems you deploy today can continue to deliver returns well into the future.

1. Software Integration

When warehouse operators first began to adopt automation, they found their existing warehouse management systems were not well suited to support it. They had to be supplemented with warehouse control and warehouse execution systems, which provided the necessary functionality but also limited the ability to collect and use data.

Monolithic software that takes a top-down approach to warehouse management lacks the flexibility to easily adapt to changing conditions. The new approach, takes a bottom-up approach to software design to integrate all of the functionality required to support an automated warehouse in a single, modular platform. This decentralized architecture allows the software to easily adapt to changing equipment and requirements and will become the standard in the future.

2. Modular design & RPA

With demand rapidly shifting from traditional retail to e-commerce and Omni-channel sales, few businesses can accurately forecast future warehousing requirements. This has caused inflexible, bolted-down automation systems to fall out of favor. They are being replaced by modular goods-to-person systems that can easily be scaled and even re-purposed in a new environment. Mobile robots adapt quickly to changes in demand and enable a pay-as-you-grow approach in which additional robots and pick stations are added as needed.

3. Business intelligence

While the future is difficult to predict, one thing is fairly certain: the most efficient warehouses will be those that can effectively use data to optimize processes, enhance availability and anticipate changes in demand. The problem isn’t necessarily collecting data, it’s being able to integrate it across systems and visualize it in ways that allow it to be easily used by warehouse personnel. The warehouse management system of the present - and the future - must allow for easy integration of business intelligence tools and consistent visualization of the insights they provide.

4. Support for virtualization

Virtualized warehouse management isn’t coming; it’s already here. It combines sensor data with warehouse models and simulations to create a digital “copy” of the warehouse. Today that enables real-time condition monitoring, material flow monitoring and process modeling - all powerful tools in improving availability and productivity.

No one knows exactly what the future will bring, but with systems that are integrated, modular, intelligent and enable virtualization you can future proof your warehouse to adapt to change and take advantage of new technologies as they emerge.