Retail insights: do dark warehouses represent a bright future for Australian industry?

By Greg Bell

Fully automated commercial sheds are springing up around the country, reshaping the way Australians move consumer goods. 

They're called dark warehouses – or dark sheds – and they're slashing logistical costs in a big way. But could these fully automated industrial solutions really represent the future of retail

What are dark warehouses? 

Aptly named, dark warehouses don't require lighting and use very little heating and cooling. That's because the work that goes on here can be done in the dark by robots, not humans. 

Until recently, these unique industrial sites were quite rare in Australia, although they've been around overseas for some time. They're becoming increasingly common, however, with a few key sites:

  • Asahi's $72 million automated storage and retrieval system in South Brisbane,
  • Coca-Cola's fully-automated pallet storage facility in Sydney, 
  • Metcash's (owner of IGA supermarkets and Cellarbrations liquor) $120 million distribution centre in Sydney,
  • Woolworth's plan to open a $215 million facility in Dandenong South, Melbourne – just down the road from Amazon's 24,000 square metre warehouse facility.

What goes on in these super sheds? Super work, of course. These warehouses are usually equipped with systems that can automate every aspect of workflow, from racking and stocking to receiving and unpacking goods containers. 

Dark warehouses and the future of retail 

Because the cost of buying or leasing these facilities is extremely high, so too is the barrier for entry. Currently, only retail giants can afford to use such spaces, although some developers are providing financial assistance as part of the tenancy agreement to bring in smaller players.

While dark warehouses might not be for everyone, automation is, particularly in a country like Australia with such high labour costs. Even bricks-and-mortar establishments are playing around with automation to help keep operational costs low. Many retailers are now using artificial intelligence to streamline manufacturing, and payment processes.

Some will remember when Domino's robotic unit (DRU) was unveiled in Australia two years ago. A fully automated pizza delivery service, DRU showcases how the transportation of food and other goods could eventually become a human-free endeavour. 

To stay afloat, bricks-and-mortar establishments will need to continue offering value that robots simply can't. Personalised, human service will be paramount moving forward as the Amazon-driven e-commerce invasion continues to transform the retail sector. 

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