Inventory management of the near- and far-future won’t look anything like it does today. Technology hasn’t just made us faster at producing the things we need — it’s helped us bring down waste, error, and uncertainty in ways that make us better equipped than ever for a quickly changing world.
In 2018, we’ll see the continued march of progress and even new ways of thinking in inventory management and throughout the supply chain. Some of the six trends below might be familiar to you, but hopefully all of them get you excited about what the future holds for this space.
1. Data Analytics
Analytical technologies and higher “intelligence” in business is perhaps the most important emerging trend on this list. Why? Because it’s nothing less than a way to improve the context and clarity with which you perform your daily operations.
In fact, there’s every indication that business data analytics will become an even more important avenue of investment for businesses with inventory: Gartner expects the market for business analytics to rise beyond the $18 billion valuation already predicted by industry experts.
2. Order Management Systems
What is an order management system? It’s simply the backbone that brings together your analytics and the other investigative footwork you do and overlays it on the process of taking and shipping customer orders. Modern order management systems make sure you’re not duplicating efforts unnecessarily or trying to ship out-of-stock items, for example.
Consider this: one customer places two separate orders for shipment to the same address. An intelligent order management system flags this for pickers and packers so both items go out in the same carton. That same order management system might also watch for strong upticks in sales for an item that is currently understocked and then alert the appropriate parties to get inventory moving.
The bottom line is that you might be doing way too much thinking when it comes to analyzing your operations and capabilities and matching them to the realities of customer demands. Let technology do some of it for you.
3. Cloud Services, the Internet of Things, and Machine-to-Machine Technology
It’s getting harder to ignore the cloud. We won’t dwell on this technology long, since there’s a very good chance you rely on cloud tech already in some capacity. The idea is simply this: you should have access to your important assets and data no matter where you do business. Whether it’s resources and inventory tools for sales agents in the field or the ability to reference one facility’s production numbers during a walking tour of another building, the cloud is a great unifier when it comes to your operations.
That’s the reason we’ve bundled the IoT and machine-machine interactions here: it all connects to create a sort of web of data and product flow. Even as production equipment at one end of the chain signals a developing backlog to a machine at the other end, both devices monitor themselves for parts wearing out and other maintenance items. Even something that seems banal these days — like movement sensors to turn lights on and off in less-frequently-used corners of your warehouse — feeds into this web of technology to help you run smoother and leaner.
You’re right to be a little hesitant: cloud and connected technologies aren’t without their potential risks. But if you got off the technology bullet-train a few stops back, you might be leaving a lot of unrealized productivity on the table.
4. Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light Systems and Voice Tasking
It might seem like a straightforward process, but making sure order pickers and stowers reach the location of a desired product in a timely fashion, and without error, if anything but simple. Your business shouldn’t get bogged down with repeatable tasks like this.
Instead, pick-to-light and put-to-light systems improve the process of interacting with inventory. As the name suggests, each bin in your product racking contains a light that visually directs the employee to the right location. The bin also has an acknowledge button so the employee can register their interaction with the bin and create a record of product “touches.” According to Cherry’s Industrial Equipment, both improvements help stamp out errors and improve your ability to track down problems — both of which are key advantages if you handle food-grade, delicate, or otherwise sensitive inventory.
Another breakthrough that seems obvious in hindsight is voice tasking for inventory handling. Whereas pickers and stowers had to rely on reading text on terminals or hand scanners, voice tasking provides audio instructions and feedback to further eliminate errors and keep the employee’s eyes on their surroundings.
5. Omni-Channel Shopping Experience
As technology became more portable and ubiquitous, human beings got better at multi-tasking and performing all of our behaviors from new locations and in new venues. There’s no better example than shopping — and it’s driving big changes for retailers and everybody else who handles physical inventory.
The idea behind an “omni-channel shopping experience” is that a customer should be able to interact with your brand and products in a retail location, on a mobile phone, or on a desktop-friendly website and have the same experience on each “channel.”
Continuity is key. Whether it’s the ability to pick up a product-laden shopping cart on their desktop PC that they began filling on their smartphone, or clipping coupons online for a cashier to scan on their phone, there should not be any digital or physical barriers to your customers having a unified experience each time they need something from you.
6. Real-Time Inventory Data
Finally, we come to an inventory management trend that was the stuff of sci-fi pipe-dreams just a couple years ago: real-time inventory data. We’ve already covered some of the ways analytics and connected machines can remove uncertainty from your operation — this just takes it one step further.
In fact, all across industry, real-time data is helping us run cleaner, leaner and more efficient operations. Just-in-time production extends to your warehouse or distribution center and makes you a central piece of the inventory management puzzle. Now, no player in the supply chain needs to wonder what the next player is doing — technology has demystified the process and enabled us to ship only when we need to ship and carry no more merchandise than we need at any given time.
In this way, each of the trends on this list represents a way to make everything to do with commerce more transparent and, for lack of a better word, democratic. Everything to do with modern life requires effective communication and a clarity of purpose — so why not let it begin here?