Here are 5 questions to guide your implementation.
Today, automation and robotics are a key technology driving advancement and innovation across the industrial sector, and the warehouse context is no exception. Automation technologies use specialized equipment and software to complete high-volume, repetitive tasks more efficiently, safer, and with fewer errors than manual operations. Warehouse automation can take many forms across task types and scales, with wide-ranging benefits to different business areas and performance metrics, and has the potential to transform warehouse operations and facilitate business growth and profitability.
However, to reliably realize long-term success, a smart strategy and careful planning are vital. Here are five key questions you should consider.
Ceaseless innovation across industries and steady improvements in efficiency and productivity have increased convenience for consumers. This has led to rising baseline consumer expectations, with convenience, as manifested through rapid, flexible delivery, being especially influential in the past decade. More recently, sustainability has become a central concern globally. Consumer, investor, and regulatory pressures are shifting the paradigm of business efficiency from high-volume-but-wasteful to doing-more-with-less.
Automation technologies are able to scale industrial processes in warehouses and they don’t require downtime. Once operational, they can work 24/7/365. This means significant potential for cost savings, productivity, and efficiency. Smart warehouse automation can also densify storage, reducing urban sprawl and energy use. For example, the AutoStore cube-storage system provides four times the storage capacity within the same footprint, and its Robots use a smart charging schedule to optimize energy consumption.
The best way to realize value depends on the specific features of your operations, supply chain context, and region. As a general rule, look for tasks where it’s important to be quick and consistent, but there isn’t value above the level of competency – think capturing data or physically storing and retrieving inventory. Put another way, as automation can do more of the grunt work, employees’ focus should be on work leveraging unique human abilities such as emotional intelligence, creativity, and adapting to novel situations. Dangerous tasks are also a good candidate for automation, as this improves worker safety and well-being while reducing risks and associated insurance costs.
When investing in automation, knowing the right questions to ask vendors is important. Our Questions to ask Vendors guide provides insight into what questions to ask automation vendors and why they matter. Download your copy today.
Start with tasks and processes benefiting from automation and work backwards to find the best technology fit. Automation includes digital (software) and physical (equipment mechanization) technologies, which can be used separately to perform specific tasks or combined into systems to handle larger sets of processes.
Digital automation is largely used to simplify manual workflows. It is increasingly accessible to small- and medium-sized businesses, as cloud storage and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) models remove the need for large up-front investments. Examples include warehouse management systems (WMS), which provide visibility into inventory, track material and resource usage, and manage fulfillment processes.
Physical automation is used to perform specialized manual tasks more efficiently than human employees. Conveyor systems transport inventory along predetermined routes, and can be combined with AIDC for sortation – determining when to offload different types of inventory. Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) both transport heavy inventory around a warehouse, reducing low-value but physically onerous human labor. AMRs can navigate changing environments. If you have a large, low-traffic warehouse, AGVs may be sufficient.
Automatic storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) and goods-to-person (GTP) fulfillment systems automate similar process clusters, allowing you to move, store, and retrieve inventory and equipment more quickly, accurately, and efficiently. Various systems are optimized for different contexts, including item dimensions and weight, warehouse size and layout, and other logistical requirements such as vertical and horizontal movement.
For basic functioning, all automation requires on-site networking, alongside other IT infrastructure for data storage and processing, which can either be housed on-site, or offsite via cloud. However, the benefits of automation can also be extended through many other technologies.
Data from automation technologies can uncover actionable insights and trends and be leveraged in enterprise and resource planning (ERP) systems to facilitate functions such as sales forecasting, order tracking, revenue tracking, relationship management with customers and suppliers, and more. Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) networks facilitate the interconnection of many types of mechanized equipment, electronics, lighting, and software for various purposes, such as optimizing resource efficiency to improve sustainability, or enabling predictive maintenance and reducing downtime. Finally, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) have natural synergy with automation – the former finds optimal ways to run processes, and the latter reliably executes them.
Benjamin Franklin once said that “by failing to plan, you are preparing to fail” and this certainly holds true for warehouse automation projects. From high-level strategy to logistics and people management, planning is critical to realizing the potential benefits of automation.
Before starting, prioritize the areas you want to automate, calculate the costs, and define the expected outcomes in terms of benefits to productivity, cost savings, and business growth. Next, ensure all employees are prepared for the transition. Upskill, retrain, and have open conversations with warehouse floor employees about how their work will change, and delineate new responsibilities – including overseeing deployment – and clear accountability mechanisms for managers.
Finally, pre-optimize and prepare for new logistical challenges as far in advance as possible before deployment. This includes clearing floor space, replacing legacy systems that are incompatible with automation, and ensuring you have the infrastructure to store and process data securely.
As global supply chains become increasingly interconnected, manufacturers can expand into more and more new markets, creating concurrent needs for greater storage capacity and accessibility across diverse geographic locations. While warehouses can massively benefit from this trend, they also need to adapt quickly – finding ways to increase the rate of throughput and enable more granular storage and retrieval processes, while operating 24/7, mitigating environmental impact, and reducing costs.
This is certainly no easy task. However, selective, progressive, and intelligent implementation of automation processes is a powerful strategy, and can enable warehouse operations to rise to the challenge.
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