Distribution centers rise to meet unprecedented challenges

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on supply chains. Not long ago, much of the world never considered how items got from manufacturers to store shelves. However, the consumer panic around the coronavirus outbreak caused widespread store shortages, and the global supply chain became front-page news.

Companies and individuals on supply chain front lines are doing heroic work to help ensure the right items are going to the right places at the right time. As the supply chain technology partner for many of the world’s top brands, we at Manhattan Associates are fortunate to see these heroic efforts firsthand. Here are some observations on the challenges our customers have faced and how they’re overcoming them.

A coronavirus peak

There is no doubt that distribution centers (DCs) are going above and beyond to fulfill massive amounts of orders. Essential life-sustaining items like food, water, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, pet supplies and more are now in short supply. Pressing needs and panic buying have created the equivalent to peak season demand in many industries. Of course, businesses normally know when their peak season will occur and they plan for it. The current situation has come out of nowhere, requiring operations to safely ramp up staffing while also maintaining maximum throughput.

The foremost consideration in warehouses today is worker health and safety. A DC has a finite amount of space, so true social distancing is not always possible. However, a warehouse management system (WMS) can help with safety measures that are being put in place. Our customers are employing the following strategies: utilizing split shifts, using the system to limit the number of employees in a given zone/aisle, re-routing pick paths based upon safety rather than productivity, and diligently sanitizing warehouse equipment. All in an effort to protect employees’ wellness.

Many customers we’ve spoken to also tell us that they’ve had to add to their workforce, which requires onboarding and training. With a normal peak, large groups of employees can be planned for and trained at once. Today, new employees are being brought in on the fly, with many coming from service industries or DCs that have seen a downturn in demand. Efficiently getting them up to speed is critical. Distribution centers using intuitive interfaces have had an easier time turning new staff into productive workers.

Agility within the warehouse

There is great urgency within the supply chain for items like medical gloves and masks, ventilators, medicine, toilet paper and food staples. Panic buying has reduced stock below normal levels. As we have all witnessed, many items barely make it to the store shelves before they’re snapped up. Therefore, DCs have needed to be as nimble as possible to keep things moving.

Crossdocking and flow-through capabilities have always been essential to getting product received, unloaded and turned around rapidly. Customers are reporting that now even greater amounts of inventory are going from inbound trailers to outbound trailers with minimal rehandling. As ecommerce orders scale exponentially, many customers have also suddenly been required to adjust DC operations. Capacity once used for store shipments (even fully dedicated retail DCs) is being temporarily converted to deal with the surge in ecommerce volumes. Both operationally and systematically, it takes incredible flexibility to be able to handle the differences between retail and ecommerce fulfillment.

These days, operational agility can also include flexible utilization of production assets beyond the human workforce, like robots and automation. Robotics and automation are not compromised during a pandemic, don’t have to adhere to social distancing and can supplement DC workers across multiple tasks. A WMS that can seamlessly integrate a range of robotics options is definitely a plus and is also a reliable way to prepare for any future crises.

A supply chain full of heroes

At Manhattan, we are in awe of the companies and individuals who are working long hours during an unsettling time to keep life and commerce moving forward. Their determination and ingenuity leave us both inspired and grateful. We will continue to support them in any way we can with technology and expertise, so that, as new challenges emerge, we get through them together.

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