Trade for prosperity

Warehousing is a key enabler of global trade, yet it is often overlooked until things go wrong. More recently, the sector has emerged from its usual backroom role and found itself in the spotlight due to the pandemic. The massive acceleration of online shopping has brought a new appreciation of logistics in keeping the nation clothed and fed, but it has also underlined the importance for warehouse operators of digitisation in meeting the demands and expectation of customers and ultimately, consumers.

The UK Warehousing Association (UKWA) has long urged members to embrace the new digital world or be left behind. At the last (pre-pandemic) UKWA national conference, the message from attending retailers was clear, the skills and knowledge within the logistics industry would be critical to successful partnership, particularly with regards to technology.

While the largest operators of warehouses may well have the resources to implement the latest in automation and digitisation, many SMEs in the sector fear the potential disruption and believe that the cost of investing in technology and new systems is simply too high. A poll of members at our 2020 national conference suggested that while 79% recognised the importance of automation, 67% cited cost as a barrier.

Accordingly, UKWA has been working alongside the University of Cambridge Institute for Manufacturing on a project known as ‘Digital Logistics on a Shoestring’, designed to enable members to introduce technology into their warehouse operations without costly investments or complex installations.

The project is focused on developing and testing digital solutions where the total cost of deployment is kept low by using accessible ‘off- the-shelf’ technology including mobile phones, virtual assistant AI technology such as Alexa, and the Cloud. Its aim is to identify low cost and easily adoptable solutions, such as monitoring the capacity of warehouse resources in real time or tracking inventory, to drive efficiency and support members in competing effectively.

A typical ‘Digital Shoestring’ solution is simple and easy to deploy, pragmatic and affordable. It is not intended for core production control or safety critical operations, but rather for low-risk applications such as decision support, staff guidance and sensing. Ideally, this is a complementary fit to the ‘bigger picture’ of overall data sharing, management and usage, as well as introducing members to the benefits of increased digitisation.

Clearly, the departure of the UK from the European Union has increased the digital burden on the logistics sector considerably, with the introduction of additional customs requirements and plans to replace the long-established CHIEF system with a new platform, the Customs Declaration Service, by March 2023. While the UK Government is looking more towards digital services, many European counterparts are not ‘on the same page’ nor will they be able to interface with the new UK systems when they come on stream.

Already, the Government has pushed back its post-Brexit border controls to July 2022 and there is scepticism in some quarters as to whether these could be pushed back again. Nevertheless, it is important that the warehousing sector prepares for the inevitable changes ahead. New legislation around digitisation is coming in 2022 and it is the role of trade associations to ensure members are given information and the necessary support to equip them for success, in a global context, in the digital world.