July 27, 2021
While the mega fulfilment centres have the economy of scale to justify it, small and medium centres have perhaps had to endure a little more resistance to replacing human activity with AI.
But that’s changing now, thanks to the technologies that were once niche and experimental now becoming cost-effective ways to streamline even relatively small fulfilment operations.
For e-commerce business owners, the promise of faster delivery and better returns policies is no longer a “nice to have”. It’s a competitive field where rivals are sitting on the next browser tab waiting to show the customer why they’re the place to buy from.
When all else is equal, delivery the next day is definitely a deal-maker compared to the one that takes two days or longer. In their small ways, AI applications in the fulfilment centre can be that difference.
Below, we give our five most important ways that AI is thriving within innovative companies. Accuracy is at the heart of all of them, however. Speed means nothing if the orders are wrong, even if it’s a small percentage of the time. By delivering reliable AI to fulfilment, the difference becomes clear.
By constantly referring to the central database as each order is processed, it’s possible to achieve maximum efficiency in every aspect of the order, not just those processes within the centre.
For example, based on the delivery destination, AI can check which courier would be the quickest and time the removal of the item from the shelf so it arrives with the packer at just the right moment so it can be packaged and consigned with any other orders for the same run.
Thousands of such efficiencies can be calculated for each order, a task that would be impossible for a human.
The smaller the number of human interactions for routine tasks, the less likely it is that mistakes will be made, and the greater the volume of transactions that can be processed.
Thanks to AI, the fulfilment centre can use multiple data points to streamline the process from storage to loading bay, picking and diverting packages to where they’re needed, leaving the human brain power to focus on the more irregular tasks. Machine learning can also be implemented, however, which can be taught to observe how humans successfully process orders, identify predictable and routine operations within them, and take some of the strain.
AI comes into its own where routine, predictable tasks are performed, although it’s important to make a distinction between AI and simple machines. The benefit of AI is that it’s performing these routine tasks but with a degree of agency in that it can be reeling off a task many thousands of times per hour, but it is constantly receiving feedback from other parts of the process and making adjustments and corrections where necessary.
Humans are good at this too, but cannot compete when it comes to order volume. Putting artificial intelligence into the order fulfilment process can bring vast efficiencies, especially in high volume operations.
The moment the payment from the retailer is accepted and the order is sent to the fulfilment centre, various strands of an AI-powered system are activated, all with one aim: to speed up the purchase to delivery journey.
From finding the products on the shelves to ordering new stock when it’s low, the AI within the centre is constantly feeding back live information to make sure every order runs through the pipeline without having to wait. AI can also control the specific sorting areas that products arrive at so deliveries are arranged by area and driver slots. It all adds up to speed, and when retailers can offer faster delivery, they make more sales.
Ecommerce businesses probably already use a host of AI and machine learning technologies in their shop fronts, from recommendation engines to customer support chatbots. The part of the funnel between ordering and delivery is just an extension of that, and all of the AI elements feed off each other to provide greater efficiency and cost and speed.
Within the warehousing setting, things like speech recognition are speeding up instructions in the human to machine interface, and cognitive robotics are understanding ever more complex instructions and self-checking their work. The result is savings, which can mean greater profits or more competitive pricing, depending on your niche.
If you need a final push to make the decision about switching to full or partial AI in your warehousing or fulfilment centre operations, ask yourself if you’ve ever heard of a business that has switched to AI and then gone back to human decision-making. It’s unlikely many examples will spring to mind, because once implemented, the order precision tends to go through the roof.
That’s not to say humans will cease to have a role in this sector – there will always be elements of the order fulfilment process that cannot easily be automated while retaining efficiency.
Part of the benefit is that AI is inherently communicative. Data points that form the chain of instructions to the assembled machines and programs that make everything work can also talk to each other. It’s why a product can be ordered off the shelf by a packer and forgotten about until it arrives at their desk – they just know that it will be automatically processed along its route, and that they will be informed the moment there’s any kind of problem.
When this warehousing AI is plugged into both the ecommerce shop and the delivery driver’s schedule, it’s clear to see what a powerful tool you have at your disposal.
Zendbox is the chosen ecommerce fulfilment partner for sellers of a huge range of products and FMCG categories, from fragile and high value luxury items to bulky home goods and engineering components. We process fashion, electronics, home decorative products and so much more besides, but it all comes with our high visibility AI-led solutions backing it up.
Ecommerce retailers want to be spending their time sourcing or making new products, seeking out great deals, working on their marketing and keeping their websites running smoothly. The less they have to do with actually fulfilling the orders, the better.
When you send your stock to our warehouses, it’s scanned and securely and safely stored, so it’s there in our Warehouse Management System – and you’ll be able to check up on the location of each and every item whenever you so choose thanks to our Zendportal package.
And because you’ve integrated into our WMS, whether it’s Magento, WooCommerce, Shopify, Shopware, Amazon or any of the other major platforms, when someone places an order, it just … happens. You’re safe in the knowledge that your package is on its way from storage to someone’s front door.
All this is made possible by AI. We founded Zendbox in its efficient automated software and built our warehouses around it. It’s how both you, the seller, and we, the fulfilment experts can offer 100% visibility and precision on every product passing through our system.
If you keep on having satisfied customers, we keep having satisfied clients. And when competition is vital, that’s all that matters.
Wondering what E-Fulfilment is and what you need to know as an online retailer? Take a look at our latest fulfilment guide to find out!
The UK’s departure from the EU on the 1st January 2021 has caused significant complications and delays for online businesses selling internationally.