As e-commerce continues to revolutionize the way we shop, businesses are scrambling to keep pace by becoming more efficient, particularly when it comes to inventory and supply chain management.

Well, some companies are, anyway: According to the 2017 Wasp Barcode State of Small Business Report, 43 percent of small businesses don’t track their inventory, or use a manual process to do so.

Big companies like Amazon and Wal-Mart have no choice: If they’re going to get you your order in two days, or even within the next hour, they need to optimize their inventory management. They’re already doing that, in fact, by using automated processes, enlisting the help of robots, opening new warehouses staffed by thousands of new workers, and coming up with some incredible new designs for warehouses themselves

If small businesses want to keep pace in this evolving space, they’ll eventually have to get on board with automated inventory management—in order to get a better idea of what they have in stock, where that stock is along the supply chain, and how quickly they can re-up their inventory or send an item to a demanding customer. Basically, they’ll have to engage with the warehouses of the future.

Except that “the future” isn’t as far off as that phrase implies. A lot of what we think about when we think about the future has already arrived or is already in the works.

Let’s examine how warehouses are changing to better suit the needs of ecommerce, as well as brick-and-mortar stores that will depend heavily on automation.

The Role of Robots In the Warehouse

Traditionally, warehouses have been dominated by pickers, the people who actually walk the aisles, find products, and fulfill orders. One might think that these people would be replaced by faster moving, more efficient robots—but that’s only one possible reality, one that doesn’t exist today.

Instead, robot-making companies like Kiva Systems (purchased by Amazon in 2012) and Fetch are helping warehouses marry their existing human workforce to this emerging technology. While humans are still the best at “picking: the items themselves, these robots make the warehouse more efficient by traversing the thousands of square feet that humans used to have to walk, delivering inventory to the areas where it can be packed up and shipped.

While there are parts of the warehouse that we can expect robots to take over entirely, some, like Evan Garber, CEO of Escape Velocity Systems and Co-Founder of Mobe3, predict that there will actually be more people working in warehouses in the years to come—doing more, with fewer errors, thanks to aid from robots and AI.

Changes to Warehouse Size, Design, and Location

No matter how fast robots, drones, humans, and automated processes work, it will be impossible to get packages to customers in an hour unless the warehouse is nearby.

That’s why some expect new warehouses to be built closer to city centers (and by extension, the customers). In order to make this feasible, warehouses will likely be smaller than their old-school counterparts.

That doesn’t mean, necessarily, that warehouses will have fewer items in them: They may be designed with narrower walkways, or other ways that will allow for more efficient use of space (more on that later). As drones and robots improve at “picking,” items can be placed in denser configuration, saving valuable space.

On the other hand, as 3-D printing technology improves, expect it to be fully utilized both in warehouses and in brick-and-mortar locations directly, minimizing the need for hulking warehouses. Businesses will simply be able to print their inventory on the spot, rather than wait for the items to be picked, packed, and shipped. In this way, warehouses and stores will become light manufacturers as well.

Re-imagined Warehouses In the Air, Water, and Ground

What do you call a warehouse without four walls and a ceiling? That’s what Amazon, just for example, is exploring: The online behemoth recently filed patents for a number of unique warehouse designs that would totally change the way we think about inventory management.

How about a flying warehouse? One Amazon design concept is to create airborne fulfillment centers, stationed above cities, that could supply inventory to the people below via gliding drones. Wal-Mart also has plans for a blimp-style warehouse.

What about underwater or underground warehouses? Another concept involves sinking inventory, packed in watertight containers, to the bottom of bodies of water, such as pools, lakes, and reservoirs. The inventory could then be called up via air canister or artificial currents, triggered by signals activated when a purchase is made. Similar to that would be underground warehouses, with inventory sent to a hollowed out area underground.

How about a beehive-shaped warehouse? Inspired by our honey-making friends, one Amazon patent calls for different designs similar to beehives—towers of inventory that can be uniquely accessed by drones. These would be a great fit for densely populated urban areas in need of small, common items.

All of these ideas are just in the patent stage, but they portend exciting changes for the future.

Warehouses Of The Future—Predicting the Future

“Big data” is a buzz-term used across a multitude of industries, from healthcare to education to finance. Not surprisingly, using large amounts of data to recognize patterns, trends, and associations to predict human behavior is expected to be heavily utilized in logistics, warehousing, and retail.

One estimate puts the market for predictive analysis software at $6.5 billion by 2019. The value in this software will come from actually predicting customer purchases before they happen—then it will be up to the mobile warehouse near the customer to prepare for the order to come through, so the item can be delivered within an hour of ordering.

It won’t just be about completing one order at a time, of course. Predictive analysis will help warehouses optimize their supply chain and logistics operations, create more accurate shipment and delivery schedules, and formulate more accurate forecasts that will reflect historical and trending data. In a word, warehouses will be smarter. And that intelligence will be reflected in the warehouse’s efficiency and accuracy.

These changes, both big and small, may just be scratching the surface for warehouses of the future. Other concepts include designing future warehouses to be so energy-efficient as to be “net-zero,” outfitting pickers with wearable technology such as watches that can update inventory levels on the fly, and integration with driverless trucks that can communicate delays, accidents, and successful shipment runs instantaneously.

The best thing about the future, particularly when it comes to technology, is that it’s always changing. These are just our ideas, concepts, and predictions for the future of warehouses as of 2017. New advances could make for even more outrageous warehouse designs, capable robots and drones, and ways to communicate between the cloud, the warehouse, and the customer.

One thing we know for sure: The warehouse of the future will be ready to deliver everything we want from our online shopping experiences. Those that don’t—and those businesses that don’t—will quickly find themselves obsolete.