Powering the Data-Driven and Automated Retail Distribution Center
The retail distribution center has undergone a significant transformation in the last five years. Once a fairly predictable — and largely manual — operation focused on store replenishment, today’s retail distribution center has become the hub of an omnichannel retail strategy.
The impact of the changes required by this transformation are hard to overstate. From integrating item picking into operations designed for case and carton handling to adapting to the more dramatic swings in demand that are common in e-commerce, the retail distribution center is having to continually evolve to drive improvements in efficiency, speed and continuity.
Technology Enables Transformation
Technology, of course, is instrumental to this evolution. More sophisticated warehouse and order management software, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic goods-to-person automation systems are just some of the technology systems retailers are deploying to enable reduced order cycle times, efficiently respond to peaks in demand, enhance inventory visibility, and manage ongoing labor shortages.
While some of the systems being deployed can be supported from the cloud, the availability and latency requirements of many of these technologies are best met by local computing. That means distribution centers are experiencing growth not only in the systems that store and retrieve products, but also in the servers and communications devices that manage operations. It's no longer only mechanical failures that can disrupt the ability to serve stores and e-commerce customers. IT failures can have a similar effect.
Infrastructure Enables Technology
This presents a challenge for retailers because the distribution center isn't a particularly hospitable environment for IT systems. There's a reason organizations invest in temperature-controlled, power-protected and physically secure data centers and computer rooms to support business-critical IT systems: these controlled conditions are necessary for sensitive electronics to achieve the high levels of availability required by the business.
But now that the IT systems in the distribution center are becoming just as critical as those in the corporate data center, the question becomes how can conditions similar to those in the data center be replicated in the distribution center?
Fortunately, the changes occurring in retail are part of a broader trend across industries in which computing is being moved closer to the devices and users it supports. This trend, known as edge computing, is being driven by both unceasing data growth and the low latency requirements of many emerging applications, such as predictive maintenance, real-time inventory management, and AI and machine learning.
As demand for edge computing began to surface, critical infrastructure providers responded with fully integrated micro data center solutions designed to meet the needs of edge computing applications. Instead of having to source each infrastructure component separately and integrate components on site, these micro data center solutions arrive fully integrated and IT ready. Designed to provide the power protection, thermal management, remote monitoring and physical security required to support IT systems in facilities such as warehouses and distribution centers, they create a complete data center environment in a compact footprint that can be deployed quickly.
With robots continuing to displace mechanical conveyors and applications for AI and machine learning expanding, the number of servers and related IT gear located in retail distribution centers seems likely to grow. The critical infrastructure required to support this equipment is an essential, but often overlooked, factor in achieving high availability of these systems and enabling the continuing evolution of omnichannel retail. For help in understanding the infrastructure requirements of your application, check out the Vertiv edge infrastructure configuration tool.
John Dynan is director of business development, retail and finance at Vertiv, a company that designs, builds and services critical infrastructure that enables vital applications for data centers, communication networks, and commercial and industrial facilities.