Trend report: Warehouse automation and innovation in China

When it comes to warehouse automation, China is a hotbed of innovation.

Adam Noakes, Director of Supply Chain Management recently returned from TM Insight’s annual logistics study tour, where he explored some of the most advanced logistics operations in the world. Here he shares some key learnings from this exciting area.

The holy grail: zero-labour warehouses

Zero-labour warehouses are just around the corner. The lesson from China is that almost any logistics task can now be automated. For example, in the warehouse of one Alibaba logistics affiliate, 800 workers were replaced with 150 robots, which are used to carry out picking for sameday ecommerce orders. This shift has massive implications for the cost, speed and accuracy of warehouse operations.

Peak labour

We have reached an inflection point, whereby warehouse labour numbers have peaked and from now on, they will only decline. Like in many western countries, China is experiencing alarmingly low labour availability for warehousing, as workers increasingly gravitate toward more attractive occupations. In the past, a warehouse that shipped 200,000 ecommerce orders a day would be accompanied by dormitories that accommodate 1,000 workers. However, on our recent visit we saw a warehouse with comparable capacity, which only required accommodation for 50 workers. As warehouse automation solutions become more accessible, we expect this trend to be replicated here in Australia.

Leapfrogging the competition

The China retail market has leapfrogged the western trend of consumers slowly moving from bricks & mortar to online, with the Chinese consumer base starting as predominantly native online users. Similarly, Chinese robotics manufacturers have the late-starter advantage of next generation thinking unconstrained by years of manual logistics solutions. This means they are able to develop systems that require less infrastructure, utilise AI (Artificial Intelligence) and have automated independent guidance through simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM). These systems can integrate with either conventional automation systems, or standalone in end-to-end operations.

Australian Integrators

Chinese robotics manufacturers are now establishing partnerships with Australian integrators to ensure clients have local support for the automation equipment. A number of Chinese manufacturers and integrators are poised to enter the Australian market in 2019.

Smarter QA checks

We are seeing emerging technology that enables automation of QA checks. For example, on our tour of China we saw a case where optical scanning, weight and laser scanning were used to assess the size and accuracy of the product. Coupling this with AI enables businesses to continue to hone this process and drive further improvements over time.

Business intelligence

Supply chain software and IT systems can not only improve the productivity of your warehouse solution, they can also provide your business with richer insights and analytical capability. These tools can help identify areas for improvement, or direct workers in the most effective manner. We recently visited a warehouse in China where software was used to track the rate at which Autonomous Mobile Robots were transferring goods to transport loading areas. In addition to monitoring the progress of the load, the software was able to predict completion time of the load, subsequently minimising the time wastage of truck drivers waiting for loads to complete.


TM Insight is a leading provider of warehouse automation solutions. We provide an end-to-end service, from strategic planning, right through to project management. Contact us today to find out how we can help.