Warehouse and distribution centre operations have evolved massively in the last ten to twenty years. This has resulted in an overall increase in productivity at a much lower cost


Warehouse and distribution centre operations have evolved massively in the last ten to twenty years. This has resulted in an overall increase in productivity at a much lower cost, and it's mainly down to easier access to modern technologies and data. So, as it looks like robots might end up taking over our jobs much sooner than we anticipated, we thought now might be a good time to look at how the warehouse and the supply chain has evolved over the years:

The Concept

Warehouses are derived from the concept of storage, which as far as we can tell, dates back to the early stone age, when pits were used to store seeds and surplus food. The type of warehouse we see today was developed throughout time with the introduction of the Roman 'Horrea' which was used to store the supply of wine, olive oil and grain.
 
This was then developed into the Barn in the middle-ages, the wool-house in the 14th century and the mill in the 18th century, which most closely resembles the type of warehouse we use today.

Set Up & Maintenance

Historically, you'd only be able to access a warehouse if you were a large scale business, with a large scale budget! The high cost of renting and running a warehouse meant that only necessary tasks we're carried out here, but in recent years, these types of building have become much more accessible, meaning that more operations are carried out here. In the modern day, both large and small scale businesses are likely to carry out everything from packaging and pricing to manufacturing and labelling in their warehouses. Of course, along with these added operations, comes added pressure. Legislation requires your warehouse to be in tip top working order, for the safety of you and your employees. This means it's important to carry out regular risk assessments and racking inspections which is likely to cost you more than it would have years ago.

Automated Systems

These days, the majority of warehouses and distribution centres take advantage of automated systems that will carry out day-to-day tasks alongside or in place of some of your employees. These automated systems can effectively reduce overstock and shortages, and will boost profits in the long term.
 
A good warehouse management system will not only be able to assist your employees with tasks such as picking and packing. It'll also be able to take care of documentation and the shipping and receiving of goods, thus saving you money on staffing and materials. It'll also free up time for your managers, ensuring that any problems are looked after more efficiently.
 
Although automated systems are great for efficiency, you'll still need to invest in the best of quality warehouse storage systems including
pallet racking and warehouse shelving to ensure your automated picking and packing systems operate to the best of their ability.

Technological and Scientific Breakthrough

If you're using an automated system, chances are you're dealing with barcodes. The barcode was originally invented in 1954, made from lines and circles imitating Morse code, but sadly was too expensive to roll out commercially. That was, until IBM placed their spin on it and began implementing barcodes on packets of Juicy Fruit chewing gum in 1974. It became a hit, and by 1984 a third of US grocery stores were using the technology.
 
The barcode seemed too complex to implement in warehouses, not to mention costly, so it took until the early 1990's for the concept to be implemented into the supply chain. By this point, barcode technology was cheaper and more widely-used by both manufacturers and retailers.
 
Going back to a time before the barcode concept, the first major warehouse innovation was the forklift. These trucks appeared toward the 19th century. They improved productivity and eventually started replacing basic skids, crates barrels and boxes that had been used since the Roman era. The introduction of pallets enabled goods to be stacked and moved around with unparalleled efficiency and really took off during World War 2. By the time the sixties came round, forklifts and pallet racking were pretty standard in most warehouses.

'The Amazon Effect'

More recently, for retailers, the introduction of e-commerce has been somewhat difficult to deal with. More and more consumers are buying online every day, and it's causing disruption across the marketplace. Not only this, but the introduction of Amazon Prime, next day delivery and such services have placed a demand on some retailers that often isn't achievable. Some retailers even go as far as to offer same-day-delivery which puts a huge amount of pressure on couriers to deliver the goods on time.
 
These types of service have prompted the rise of 'mega-distribution centres'. These are warehouses that cover over 800,000 square feet and contain an array of warehouse storage systems from drive-in racking and cantilever racking to long span shelving and multi tiered shelving.
 
Although warehouse management systems and other technologies have enabled some retailers to respond quicker to these demands, good old fashioned storage systems have also had to evolve. New warehouse storage systems have been introduced to maximise floor space to allow for larger stock quantities and optimum stock rotation. A good example of these new storage systems are narrow aisle racking and roller racking.