Warehouse crisis management – How WMS technology manages COVID-19 demand peaks

Eric Carter, Solutions Architect at Indigo Software, explains how warehouse management technology is becoming a critical business function

The warehouse has gone from being a neglected back office to supply chain engine room and one of the most critical parts of a business function. Firstly, e-commerce helped up its profile and now, the impact of the COVID-19 crisis has formally resulted in warehouse operatives being recognised as ‘key workers’, alongside doctors and teachers. Delivery and retail workers have also been given the same status.

Today, many warehouses are now busier than ever – and not just those dispatching pasta or toilet rolls! They are essential to maintaining some semblance of normality, as every country strives to keep food products, pharmaceuticals and essential household goods widely available. While other businesses are struggling with demand dips, supermarkets especially have been overwhelmed by a wave of panic-buying, as shoppers rush to stock up amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Amazon, Aldi, Asda and Lidl have all said they need to increase capacity and planning to hire thousands of people. They are not the only ones – health food businesses are also booming and creating a significant number of new jobs within their distribution, packing and production facilities. Based on a rough count, these companies combined need to recruit at least another 130,000 people to fulfil the increased demand of the next few months – probably even more.

Interestingly, competition laws are also being relaxed to allow shops to collaborate, pool their staff and share resources to cope with the crisis. It could result in a system rather like the pallet networks, whereby retailers who had previously been arch-rivals work together, to ensure their customers have access to essentials.

WMS and dealing with new warehouse operatives

An influx of newcomers into a warehouse creates its own set of challenges as it takes time for rookie operatives to become familiar with locations, stock items and work processes. Using technology like a warehouse management system (WMS), the time needed for new operatives to reach full capacity or productivity is significantly reduced. Whereas manually, it can take a few days or even a week to get up to speed, it’s less than a day using a WMS.

Indigo sees this all the time, when customers who rely on agency workers to cope with seasonal peaks begin using a WMS. They quickly realise the ease with which new operatives can navigate their warehouses and achieve full efficiency. During extra busy periods, not to mention being in the midst of a global pandemic, warehouse managers can minimise disruption to business efficiency using technology. A WMS effectively controls all the operations required to complete the days order pool, with tasks becoming as pre-defined and automated as possible. Short of having a fully lights out operation, which isn’t achievable for many businesses, it’s the next best thing. Operatives simply have to log in and receive their instructions for the shift, with the system guiding them to the next location and confirming the actions performed are correct.

WMS and dealing with operatives self-isolating

As well as coping with new incoming staff, the COVID-19 crisis is impacting on existing staffing levels, as operatives inevitably become unwell and need to self-isolate. This is akin to having someone key to the daily operation of the warehouse leave. If they are a ‘go to’ person, like a shift supervisor or pick team leader, it can create a void as they take their experience and knowledge with them. When a WMS is implemented, with structured processes backed up by technology to take care of decision making, the impact on business as usual is much lower if a key person is absent.

WMS and long term cost reduction

Minimising the economic impact of COVID-19 is another important consideration. Working with a WMS will also ensure long term cost reduction. Based on Indigo’s existing user analysis, a warehouse manager can expect to reduce operating overheads on an ongoing basis from day 1 of implementation and see a reduction of up to 20% during peak periods, after introducing WMS technology.

Whatever happens with the Coronavirus crisis, the warehouses that are already using WMS technology to improve efficiency and productivity are certainly the best equipped to continue meeting their customer’s expectations – and have a future proofed operation for when we emerge on the other side.