Remote Warehouse Implementation During COVID-19

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A long time ago, Plato said: “Our need will be the great creator”. This is very true when applied to COVID-19 and the remote implementation and commissioning of complex technology in warehouses. Companies have been forced to be creative in implementation, testing and go-live to avoid high-cost and time-critical projects experiencing major delays or grinding to a halt.

Lately, there’s been a lot written in supply chain circles around the necessity for remote implementation of automation and IT systems into distribution centres (DCs), but not much detail around how it is actually achieved.

Here at ThreeSixty, we can speak from experience because in 2020, we were due to implement a new, automated DC for one of our retail clients, when the pandemic shut down national borders. For the last year, the DC’s technology integration has been on hold, however it is not an option to remain that way, despite ongoing travel restrictions.

The new 15000m2 retail and eCommerce fulfilment DC is a crucial part of the retailer’s larger supply chain transformation, developed by ThreeSixty and designed to respond to the increase in online shopping – already an imperative before COVID-19 sent online shopping into the stratosphere. The DC’s delivery is crucial to the success of subsequent supply chain initiatives in this transformation.

In relation to the DC, Three Sixty’s scope included equipment and automation procurement, systems design and functional development, fitout and implementation project management, testing, commissioning and acceptance, transition planning and training of staff, ramp-up operations management, and continuous improvement following go-live.

In an ideal world, these activities would happen with ThreeSixty’s feet firmly on the ground, but it was evident to Andrew Helm, our Principal Consultant for Project Services, that restrictions around COVID-19 would be with us in the near term, and he realised that innovation would be required to fulfil our service promise to our client.

The automation to be implemented for our customer included SSI Schaefer’s WMS system to manage the overall warehouse and integrate to SSI’s conveyors, eCommerce processing stations, packaging automation, and Korber’s Geek AMRs for picking and sortation.

A major challenge is the project implementation via disparate global resources with Schaefer’s team based in Austria, Singapore and Malaysia, Korber’s teams in Australia, Hong Kong and China, and ThreeSixty’s located in Australia.

A remote framework

So, how will remote implementation be achieved?

The first step was to create the global virtual teams, with members drawn from Australia, Manila, Singapore, Malaysia, Austria, China, and Hong Kong. These teams meet on a regular basis to work through project plans and issues, and ensure timelines are adhered to. ThreeSixty’s locally based project coordinator, Julius Bello, serves as our ‘in person’ liaison with our customer.

A ‘war room’ has been set up in the DC, with dedicated full-room cameras and audio for video conferencing allowing for planning and review meetings, along with operator training.

Next, Andrew and the various teams have developed strategies for the implementation and commissioning of the DC using technology such as:

  • 120 strategically placed fixed and PTZ (Pan Tilt Zoom) cameras with 24/7 live streaming
  • 28 body cameras and smart glasses with headsets, to allow the virtual teams to see what the operator is seeing, and to speak directly with operators while they are performing their tasks All cameras stream to the virtual teams across the world, 24/7, and record for point-in-time instantaneous playback
  • Remote device control software on PCs to monitor operators’ on-screen tasks, and to take control and assist as required
  • Additional cabling and bandwidth to service all the above

At the time of writing, all materials handling equipment is on site and slated for installation by mid-March. At that point, the remote integration will ramp up, with a planned DC delivery date of June 2021.

Though the technology allowing remote integration is not new, its use on such a complex project is. Implementation and go-live under these conditions are not ideal – but they are possible – and we are confident we will meet the timeline in delivering a world-class DC.

It’s hard to predict when national borders will open. But when they do, remote implementation of DC automation and software will likely remain, at least in part.

Plato was right.

Diagram of remote warehouse implementation