Ten years ago, the notion of what a warehouse was and could be was considered a closed book by many in the industry.
However, the rapid rise of the internet of things (IoT) and other technologies, combined with a changing ecommerce landscape, has pushed new warehouse capabilities from the bleeding edge to the mainstream.
Now this explosion of sensing devices and analytical capacity is reaching its logical conclusion: digital twinning of warehouses.
What is a digital twin? How will it transform warehouse operations? What impact will it have on ecommerce? We’re going to break it all down for you.
What are digital twins?
Put simply, a digital twin is an accurate, updated digital representation of a real-world environment.
What does that mean for warehousing? Essentially, data from your warehouse IoT network and WMS is combined to create a living, real-time model of your warehouse.
When a pallet moves on the floor, its location is updated in the digital twin. Temperature changes? Your sensors relay that information to the model as well. The more comprehensive your warehouse’s network of sensors and software, the higher the fidelity of your twin.
How will digital twins transform warehouse operations?
According to McKinsey, businesses now spend approximately $350b a year on warehousing, and that number is growing.
Fulfillment, and the infrastructure behind it, has become a key competitive battleground within the ecommerce space. Consumers want their shipments quickly and reliably, and will shop with companies who can make that happen (just look at Amazon).
Supply & Demand Chain Executive sees digital twins as the key to unlocking data-driven growth in the warehouse:
“Digital twins provide greater insight and visibility to an infrastructure, resulting in proactive decisions. Current uses include digital twins of packaging and container, shipment, warehouse and distribution centers, logistics infrastructure and logistics network.”
What does that look like in action?
For starters, a warehouse digital twin is an ideal sandbox for testing changes that could lead to greater efficiency and lower operating costs.
According to Mark Jones at TechHQ, “by creating a digital twin of an individual warehouse, companies can design, simulate and test new warehouse operations and product movements virtually, without making on-the-fly changes to existing sites, which are becoming increasingly complex.”
But being able to simulate changes isn’t all a digital twin can do. As ecommerce companies expand their fulfillment operations through partnerships or their own warehouses, digital twins of high-performing facilities can be used as high-fidelity templates of a new construction or refitting projects.
With a good digital model, analysts can adjust things like layout and overall footprint (critical for new last-mile fulfillment centers in dense urban-adjacent zones) to evaluable operational viability before acquiring real estate or signing a partnership agreement.
How to capitalize on this new warehouse technology?
Before you can build a warehouse digital twin, you need a network of sensing devices and software that provide the raw data the twin is built from. If your warehouse isn’t “smart” yet, now is the right time to start the transition.
Once you have a firm technology foundation in place, you can begin to investigate the development of your own digital twins.
Then you can unlock the capabilities described above, like testing changes prior to implementation and creating new warehouse spaces built on proven models.
If you rely on third-party warehousing, now is a great time to reach out to your partners and see if they’re pursuing a digital twin strategy. It can be a great way to connect your internal operational ecosystem more closely with your fulfillment partners’ technology and operations.