“Alexa, please automate my warehouse.”
How convenient would it be if it were that simple to automate the warehouse? But in order to achieve a similar future, the warehouse needs a brain to process all the information it receives and automatically execute actions to address an array of scenarios. And that brain is called Artificial Intelligence, or AI.
What is Artificial Intelligence?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a branch of computer science that aims to make machines that can mimic the functions and reactions of a human as closely as possible. It can perform human-like tasks such as decision-making, speech recognition, visual perception, and language translation.
Andrew Ng, founder and lead of the Google Brain project and several AI startups, gives a good explanation of the general idea of present AI capability:
“If a typical person can do a mental task with less than one second of thought, we can probably automate it using AI either now or in the near future.”
By understanding what AI can and cannot do, you will be able to incorporate it into your strategies. Then, it is a matter of hiring the right talent to customize your business environment and data to automate your operations and have important insights at your fingertips.
The Value of Artificial Intelligence in the Warehouse
Artificial Intelligence generates value in the warehouse through various sub-technologies: machine learning, natural language processing, robotics, and computer vision. Here’s how each functions.
Machine learning uses algorithms to “learn from experience” and make practical decisions for the warehouse. Using data gathered from sensors, it notices patterns and suggests actions such as faster replenishment of nearly out-of-stock items, shorter walking routes, and better inventory positioning.
Some AI features enable warehouse wearable technology. Natural language processing makes voice-picking possible so that workers can operate hands-free and more safely. Smart glasses are equipped with cameras that use computer vision to automatically recognize barcodes. Also using computer vision, cameras placed around the warehouse enable end-to-end product tracking.
Lastly, robotics lends AI a physical presence, spatial awareness, and movement in the real world. AI robots’ capabilities can vary from tasks such as loading or unloading a pallet, moving cargo around the warehouse, and/or performing picking operations.
Artificial General Intelligence, which is the term for AI that can perform any intellectual task that a human can do, is still a long way off. These sub-tasks of AI are the necessary stepping stones to achieve “full AI,” which has the potential to operate a warehouse nearly autonomously.
Where is AI in the Warehouse Industry Now?
In the MHI Annual Industry Report 2018, only 6% of respondents were currently using AI technology. Despite the low number, more than half of the respondents believe that AI has the power to disrupt the industry and create competitive advantage. In 3–5 years, 47% of respondents expect to have adopted the technology.
S-Curve of Innovation
For the S-curve, Artificial Intelligence is currently in the Ferment stage. This indicates that the technology is still in its infancy, especially for the warehousing industry. In eyefortransport’s 2018 Supply Chain Study, 33.4% of respondents said they were experimenting with AI, as they are confident in the potential of this technology.
Technology Adoption Life Cycle
For the technology adoption life cycle, AI is currently being adopted by the early adopters. Six percent of respondents on the latest MHI are using the technology. And in 1–2 years, AI is expected to cross the chasm and be adopted by the early majority.
The infancy of this technology is limiting adoption to thought leaders who have sound financials. But as soon as it proves itself in the industry, AI will be a core part of every warehouse.
For the Hype Cycle, Gartner placed Artificial Intelligence at the start of the Innovation Trigger of the Hype Cycle for Supply Chain Strategy. They also indicated that it will take more than 10 years for the technology to reach the Plateau of Productivity.
Artificial Intelligence is one of the core components necessary for warehouse digitalization to fully mature. Being the brain of the digitalized warehouse, it integrates with other technologies in order to achieve full automation. If you don’t have the financials to experiment with this type of technology, it’s best to keep an eye on it, for it will likely prove itself soon.
If you have any questions or inquiries about warehouse technology, you can leave a comment below or contact us here.