Warehouses of the Future

The needs of warehouses are changing rapidly as mega-retailers like Amazon and Wal-Mart continue to upend both traditional and e-commerce spaces. Even smaller businesses are recognizing the benefit—if not the outright need—of utilizing the warehouse space that a company like Amazon provides, and thus their future is wrapped up in the future of warehouse technology developments.

This leads us to the question: What kind of changes can we look forward to when it comes to warehouse design?

Here’s a rundown of what to possibly expect in the years to come:

Underwater or Underground Warehouses

There’s no doubt that when you imagine a warehouse, you imagine it on land. It’s likely a big square building, with lots of aisles and space for people and/or robots to move around. The latter part of that is the problem for Amazon: They consider all the non-inventory in a warehouse to be wasted space. So, they just filed a patent for a storage system that would take place completely underwater—in lakes, reservoirs, and pools. Although the exact methodology for the Aquatic Storage Facility is still being worked out, the patent outlines a number of options: Inventory could be delivered to the body of water by truck or by parachute and lowered into the water in super watertight containers that could hold any of Amazon’s regular products, like shoes or books. To resurface the item, an air canister triggered by a signal would send the container to the surface; or by means of artificial currents. Then humans, drones, or other robots could retrieve the package for delivery.

Flying Warehouses

If going underwater or underground isn’t doable, look up. Amazon also filed a patent for airships that could carry warehouses high above the earth. These AFCs [airborne fulfillment centers] could be stationed above cities and used to store and rapidly deliver items at times of high demand. They would do this using the drones – also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs.

Best of all, the drones that deliver packages off the AFCs wouldn’t use any energy, but just glide down and occasionally hover as well. The goal of using as little energy and being as sustainable as possible will be a major development point for all warehouse designs. Shuttles could be used to deliver workers, drones, and inventory up to the airship.

Beehive Warehouses for Drones

Yet another Amazon patent promises something unique: A beehive-like tower that is built specifically with drones in mind. According to the patent, these towers could take a number of different shapes: One design looks more like an egg, while another has more of a spiral look. These unique shapes all these types of towers to be built in the middle of densely populated urban areas to best serve that area’s delivery needs.

So, unlike traditional fulfillment centers, these fulfillment centers may include many levels; have one or more landing locations and one or more deployment locations to accommodate UAVs. And, since drones, at this point, are limited to deliveries of 5 pounds or less, expect these beehive towers to be stocked with popular yet smaller items that could be delivered with shocking efficiency.

Other Improvements to Existing Warehouses

Some other “warehouse of the future” ideas include:

  • Net-zero buildings: As mentioned above, sustainability will be a major design goal for warehouses going forward. In a couple of decades, expect warehouses to be “net-zero” in terms of their energy use, thanks to solar panels that will provide energy for light and equipment as well as recharge the vehicles that make deliveries.
  • Artificial intelligence and self-driving vehicles: We’re already seeing the use of drones and other smart machines in the warehouse but expect the number of warehouses using robots and self-driving machines to increase exponentially in the coming years. Expect self-driving vehicles like trucks to be added to warehouse fleets, in order to make better use of time and use gas or energy more efficiently.
  • 3-D printing: 3-D printing technology is in its nascent stages today, but by next decade we should expect to see them fully in use in warehouses. The supply chain will be shortened significantly when warehouses can simply print the inventory they once had to wait to be shipped.
  • Predictive shipping: Using “big data,” warehouses may be able to predict an order before it even takes place. That kind of foresight will help businesses complete deliveries more quickly than ever before.

Warehouses, like everything else in our society, will be undergoing major technological upgrades in the years to come. Whether they’re retrofitted with robots or designed as a whole new entity altogether, it promises to usher in a new era of efficiency and excitement.