Warehouse technologies: The evolution of smart fulfillment

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If you asked the average person on the street to describe what a warehouse looks like, they would probably respond with one of two ideas. 

The first would be reminiscent of the closing scenes of Raiders of the Lost Ark, with clipboard-toting men in brown coats working methodically in a dark and dusty maze of packaging crates and sky-high shelving. Alternatively, they might imagine a vast, ultra-modern, temperature-controlled environment with robots running the show. 

In reality, the average modern warehouse is probably somewhere between the two, with a blend of technology and people power working together to ensure goods move through the system accurately — and efficiently.

We spoke with Kate Mortenson, Product Analyst at Linnworks, to discover how online sellers of all sizes embrace warehouse technologies to save time, reduce costs, and deliver a more profitable service.

The evolution of warehouse technologies

“Humans have been storing stuff for as long as we’ve been agrarian,” says Mortenson. “As trade evolved and we started moving stuff around, we had to start keeping ledger books. There are examples of that throughout history.”

Then, as business grew and mass consumerism took hold, we needed a better system to track the movement and storage of goods. “It wasn’t until the 1970s when we moved beyond pen and paper and rolled out the first electronic systems,” says Mortenson. “The first bar coding system was established in 1971. Fun fact: The first item to have a barcode scanned was a pack of regular gum.”

Those barcode systems were developed throughout the ’70s and ’80s alongside on-premise solutions, which managed all of these transactions on a server located on the business’s premises. “Then in the mid to late 1990s, early 2000s, that’s when we started seeing the adoption of the Internet of Things, where systems are able to pass transactions between each other,” says Mortenson. “So a warehouse in Des Moines, Iowa, could be doing things, and we would be able to send that data to California. So California knows what stock is coming in from Des Moines, and vice versa.”

Then Amazon launched Amazon Web Services in 2006, enabling warehouse technologies to move into the cloud computing era. “That’s when we really started to see the acceleration of the transfer of knowledge,” says Mortenson. “That leads us to today, where we have a lot more automated systems in place.”

What are the best warehouse technologies for small businesses? 

While large corporations have led the charge, trickle-down technology means many of the same sophisticated warehouse technologies are now available to businesses of all sizes. 

Warehouse Management System (WMS) +

Alongside scalable Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) like Linnworks Advanced or SkuVault Core, companies are investing in technology that helps automate many processes along the picking, packing, and shipping journey.

“One thing I’ve seen many midsize businesses use is a device they call the ‘eye in the sky,'” says Mortenson. “It’s a robot with an optical sensor that will scan the barcode, weigh the item, and measure the dimensions of the package at the same time. That all happens while the item is going down a conveyor and getting ready to be sorted for shipping.” 

Another great way for small and medium-sized businesses to get on board that train is by using pick-to-light or voice-picking systems. “Instead of investing in a robot or a drone, you can have your employees guided around the warehouse by lights or voice prompts in a really efficient manner,” says Mortenson.

Pick-to-light and voice-picking systems integrate with your WMS to enhance efficiency in warehouse operations. “With pick-to-light systems, the WMS communicates pick instructions to designated locations illuminated by lights, guiding workers to the exact items needed for order fulfillment,” says Mortenson. “This reduces picking errors and speeds up the process significantly.”

Similarly, in voice-picking systems, the WMS sends instructions directly to workers via headsets, guiding them through the warehouse and providing hands-free direction for item selection and placement. Both systems interface closely with the WMS, ensuring real-time data exchange and accuracy in inventory management, order processing, and fulfillment. 

Benefits of adopting advanced warehouse technologies

Helping your staff do their job more efficiently isn’t just about reducing costs and driving profits; it’s an essential motivational tool. “I’ve worked in a warehouse during peak season, and it’s all hands on deck,” says Mortenson. “It’s really challenging to show up every day and have the energy to care about what needs to be done to hit your targets. So we have to look at how warehouse technologies can reduce the energy it will take for somebody to do a task because that’s pretty expensive, especially when tasks become repetitive.”  

Data analysis

There are a lot of hidden costs in the warehouse. “When people look at their operations, they’re looking at the cost of goods sold, and they’re looking at their balance sheet,” says Mortenson. “It’s really easy to forget the amount of money you’ve spent to keep a warehouse running.”

“Data analytics and reporting are how businesses are going to be able to scale effectively and smartly,” says Mortenson. “They can use a generative AI tool, machine learning, or a large language model and feed their data into those systems to analyze that information. This will help them figure out what’s possible, where waste might be adding up, and what approaches might prove more profitable for you.”


While AI can be beneficial, it is not infallible. “I’m always wary about suggesting that AI offers the absolute truth,” says Mortenson. “It will help you identify trends you might not have seen in your data, but you’re still going to know your business better than an AI will.”

Businesses should, therefore, approach AI as a tool to give them ideas and help influence decisions, but not rely on it as something that will solve all its problems.

Collaborative robots 

AI is just one example of a technology that can help humans be better at their jobs.

“We’re seeing more businesses invest in something called collaborative robots, or Cobots,” says Mortenson. “That’s a robot that works in tandem with a human. I think that is going to become more widely adopted. Some tasks will always be better suited to humans, while robots can do the heavy lifting and ultra-repetitive processes.”

Challenges in implementing new technologies in warehouses

Creating a best-in-breed techstack can be challenging. “A lot of businesses will ask if they can do the job with the systems they already have in place,” says Mortenson. “Replatforming can be a nightmare, especially when they need to change their back office systems and make them compatible with each other.”

Businesses that were early adopters of ecommerce marketplaces and invested heavily in on-premise systems can find the transition particularly difficult. “This can make it difficult to move their business onto new marketplaces,” says Mortenson. “If they are going to grow their business across new channels, they will have to evaluate new systems.”

Gall’s law

When implementing new warehouse technologies, businesses should consider Gall’s Law.

“Gall’s law basically says that complex systems don’t happen overnight,” says Mortenson. “The adage, Rome wasn’t built in a day, is very true. If we try to build a complex system from scratch, it’s never going to work.” This means taking the time to plan for the implementation of any new system.

“It’s essential to have a deep understanding of your current processes and the technologies in play,” says Mortenson. “That means figuring out who uses what, how do they get the information they use, where does that information come from, what systems update each other, and how does it all play together?” 

The process is much easier if you can visualize it. “My biggest piece of advice is to draw it out,” says Mortenson. “It doesn’t matter if it’s on a whiteboard or a napkin. You’ve got to know what your supply chain looks like. Talk to your procurement team and get them to draw how their processes work. Then repeat the process for each system, and start mapping out how all those systems play together.”

Businesses can then start looking at removing duplicative or repetitive processes. “You don’t want two pieces of software competing to be a source of truth,” says Mortenson. “Prioritization is going to be a big part of that project.”

It’s also important to establish timelines and set deadlines. “It’s going to take all the time you give it,” says Mortenson. “Setting smaller, achievable goals will help you get there faster.”

When you understand how warehouse technologies can help you build a more efficient operation, it becomes easier to prioritize further optimizations.

“Once you have a barcode system and a WMS in place, helping your employees do their job quickly and efficiently, you can start looking at your physical space and how can you optimize every inch of it,” says Mortenson. “How does your product move through that space? If you’re unsure how to do that, technology can help you.” 

Modern warehouse managers will always look to reduce redundancy and repetitive tasks. 

“They will look at ‘desire paths’ and use conveyor belts to move products from point to point over workers’ heads. When so much work is happening on the ground, they might find unutilized and underutilized space up top.” 

How to choose the right warehouse technologies for your business

Selecting the best warehouse technologies for your business requires a systematic approach, encompassing the assessment of operational needs, evaluation of available solutions, consideration of scalability and integration capabilities, calculation of ROI, and a focus on employee training and vendor support. This process will include:

Assessing your business needs

Understand your business’s unique requirements, including inventory volume, SKU variety, order fulfillment speed, labor availability, and customer demands. Identify pain points and areas for improvement within your warehouse operations.

Defining your goals

Clearly define your goals for implementing warehouse technologies. Are you aiming to increase efficiency, reduce errors, improve inventory accuracy, enhance customer service, or optimize space utilization?

Researching available technologies

Explore the range of warehouse technologies available in the market. These may include:

  • Warehouse Management Systems (WMS)
  • Inventory Management Systems (IMS)
  • Warehouse Control Systems (WCS)
  • Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
  • Barcode and RFID systems
  • Pick-to-light and Put-to-light systems
  • Voice-directed picking systems
  • Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)
  • Conveyor systems
  • Material Handling Equipment (MHE) like forklifts, pallet jacks, etc.

Considering scalability

Choose technologies that can scale with your business as it grows. Ensure the selected solutions can accommodate increasing inventory volumes, orders, and customer demands.

Evaluating integration capabilities

Assess how well the warehouse technologies integrate with your existing systems, such as ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software, transportation management systems, and e-commerce platforms. Seamless integration can streamline data flow and improve overall efficiency.

Calculating ROI

Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine each potential technology’s return on investment (ROI). Consider not only the upfront costs but also the long-term savings in labor, time, and error reduction.

Considering employee training and adoption

Evaluate the ease of use and training requirements for implementing the chosen technologies. Choose solutions your employees can quickly learn and adopt to minimize disruptions to daily operations.

Seek vendor support and references

Research vendors thoroughly and seek recommendations from industry peers. Evaluate vendors based on their reputation, customer support services, and track record of successful implementations.

Pilot testing and iteration

Consider piloting the selected technologies on a small scale before full deployment. Pilot testing allows you to identify potential issues or challenges and make necessary adjustments before rolling out the technology across the entire warehouse.

Stay flexible and adapt

Recognize that warehouse technologies are continually evolving. Stay abreast of new developments and be willing to adapt your technology stack to leverage innovations that can further enhance your warehouse operations.

Speak to an expert

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to deploying warehouse technologies. “There are very large businesses that work off Excel sheets,” says Mortenson. “They are militant about who has access to what pieces of information, and that’s fine if it’s working for you. However, if you’re using something that’s slightly outdated, and you’re spending all of your time fixing, and you’re not spending any of your time innovating, then you have a problem.” 

The wide range of technology options available to the modern warehouse team might seem overwhelming. Before investing in any new technology it is always important to seek the advice of an expert who has seen the implementation of numerous systems in warehouses of all shapes and sizes. 

To learn more about how warehouse technologies can help your operations become more efficient and profitable, contact us today or request a demo

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