New ways of working

By Mark Nicholson

August 2021

Permanent Covid-driven changes in the warehouse

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has been tragic, it has been a stimulus for developments which will boost business efficiency and resilience in the longer term. Mark Nicholson takes a look at the ‘new normal’ for warehousing and materials handling operations.

Hygiene is a way of life


Keeping your germs to yourself.

Globally, the emergence of new life-threatening diseases has become a regular occurrence and we would be foolish to assume that Covid-19 will be the last. We should be prepared to defend people and businesses against both emerging and familiar infectious illnesses.

In our new world, it is no longer socially acceptable to go to work with streaming cold or flu symptoms, uncontrollable coughs or unpleasant stomach conditions and spread them to everyone else. Those with any kind of transmissible sickness should stay at home and only work if they can do so remotely. Some workplaces now routinely use hand-held temperature scanners or automatic heat detection cameras to make a quick health check before allowing admission.

Increased hand washing has become automatic for most of us, and it makes sense to continue placing disinfectant handwash bottles in strategic places as a back-up. Disinfection of surfaces is important and in the future we will see much more use of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in that role. This isn’t science fiction: disinfection robots are already widely available to buy or hire.

Businesses have found many simple but effective ways of reducing contact and increasing space between individuals. In warehouses, attention must be given to separating workers in crowded areas such as packing stations, and in shared facilities such as staff rooms. Noise reduction, enabling workers to hear each other easily, is also helpful. Having to come close together and shout may accelerate transmission of airborne disease organisms.

In our new world, it is no longer socially acceptable to go to work with streaming cold or flu symptoms.

Remote working is encouraged


Working at home – at least some of the time.

For many organisations and roles, working at home is the obvious way of avoiding contact risks. While this is relatively straightforward for office-based staff, it’s not an option for lift truck drivers and other warehouse operatives. However, there are still numerous other activities which can be carried out remotely, as we shall see.

Aside from illness, factors which prevent employees from reaching their workplace may include weather-related problems like floods and wildfires disrupting transport. These are becoming more frequent and are a further driver for remote practices (see Eureka 34). Another incentive is efficiency. If a task can be carried out without travelling from site to site, time and fuel can be saved.

Furthermore, many staff who were forced to work at home by the pandemic have found the change enjoyable and productive. Some sectors are seeing a permanent shift toward home working, or hybrid approaches with at least some work at home. These reduce the demands on business premises and save money.

Digital technology is nothing to fear


Embracing digital technology.

If remote working is to be effective, employees need to be able to communicate with each other and to have access to the equipment, information and computer-based functions they would have in the physical workspace. This is now easy to achieve through well-established advances in cloud computing and the Internet of Things (IoT) in particular.

Warning: we are now going to talk about digitalisation, connectivity and mobile technology – but don’t worry if you and your team have a limited understanding of IT. There are suppliers who can provide everything you need, in a package that includes all of the planning, installation and running of the systems we discuss here.

These systems are now much simpler, less disruptive and more affordable to introduce into your business. With an all-inclusive contract, you can leave it to your provider to keep them working and to update them as the technology advances. They can also be easily expanded and adapted as your company develops and your needs change.

Rest assured, there is no need for a sudden transformation of your warehouse into a futuristic, fully automated, computer-controlled operation. Just take one small step into digitalisation and then build on it gradually, at a pace that feels comfortable.

Although in many ways the Covid pandemic has kept people apart, it seems to have accelerated progress toward a more connected world.

Machines are remotely monitored


Managing equipment remotely.

In Eureka 37 we explained how digital remote technology is used in lift truck fleet management to reduce the total cost of operation (TCO). IoT devices on the trucks wirelessly transmit data on their activities and condition to a cloud-based server. Analysis of the data enables improved decision-making which optimises maintenance and use of the fleet.

Importantly, expert data analysis and interpretation by system providers is something else that can be included within technology contract packages.

The same principle can be applied to other equipment such as conveyors, heating systems and – in factories – production machinery. Monitoring the condition of these things remotely means there is no need for service engineers to travel to make checks. Meanwhile, the data gathered and analysed allows predictive maintenance in which replacements and repairs are timed perfectly to minimise downtime.

Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies are increasingly being applied in maintenance work and elsewhere. They allow a member of staff on the site to be remotely guided and instructed by a specialist with a shared view of the equipment. This can be useful in assessing problems and directing adjustments or repairs.

Digitalisation brings us closer


Becoming better connected.

Virtual meetings, via platforms such as Teams, Zoom and Skype, became a necessity during the pandemic and saved huge amounts of travelling time and venue costs. Although face-to-face meetings have their advantages, businesses now have to consider whether they are necessary in every case. The same is true for classroom-based training presentations and discussions.

Digital communication and connectivity technology not only supports remote working but enhances each individual’s contribution to the organisation. Through mobile connection to systems, they can become additional suppliers of data by recording problems, accidents and other relevant information.

System types include WMS (warehouse management system), ERP (enterprise research planning), EAM (enterprise asset management) and EHS (environment health and safety) management. These can be linked together to create even more powerful data sets whose analysis leads to even greater improvements.

By accessing information in these systems via their smartphones or other mobile devices, employees benefit from the company’s collective knowledge. What’s more, that knowledge is retained by the system and not lost when staff retire.

Mobile communication devices can also build stronger and more effective connections between a company’s staff. Wherever they are in the warehouse, or at home, they can instantly receive up-to-date information from the company. Existing or customised social media apps may be used to encourage useful interaction with colleagues and managers, including opportunities to make comments, raise issues and get to know each other.

Although in many ways the Covid pandemic has kept people apart, it seems to have accelerated progress toward a more connected world.