February 3, 2023
February 3, 2023

Warehouse Automation Implementation Planning: 5 Key Areas to Consider

Here are 5 questions to guide your implementation.

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Today, automation and robotics are key drivers of performance and innovation across almost all industries, and warehouse operations are no exception. However, warehouse automation maturity and adoption are still low across most operations around the world. But warehouse automation can describe a variety of technology types, and setups can range from small single-application solutions executing one task to highly complex multi-technology systems with advanced integrations. And if your organization's automation maturity is currently low, all these different factors can make it difficult to confidently start scoping out a potential project.

You might have a ton of questions making it hard to know where to start, for example.:

  • Do we plan for a one-off huge implementation, and automate as much as possible in one fell swoop? Or should we role out implementation in phases, to scale and transition more smoothly?
  • Do we build for the capacity we need right now, or for our future growth?
  • Can we use our existing processes and tools, or do we have to start from scratch once we automate?

But there are five key areas you should consider and align on internally to help structure and frame advanced planning later.

1. Align on why automation is important to your operation

Generally, warehouse automation can be said to positively impact productivity and efficiency. More specifically, it can automate many common warehouse tasks and workflows, such as order picking and retrieval, or packing and labeling. But each operation is different, depending on the physical location and layout, products, order volume, etc. Some operational areas and processes will create a much higher overall impact on your processes than others. Understanding and agreeing on the areas where you can make the biggest gains gives you a great starting point to move forward.

From there, for example, you can start to determine which success factors you will want to build KPIs on or decide which categories of automation technology you should focus your budget on. Indeed, it's not just task execution and productivity that warehouse automation can improve. It can be used to maximize storage capacity, allowing you to offer more choice (expanded SKU) and availability (higher stock depth), or be leveraged for data analysis to support strategic business decision-making.

2. Identify tasks and processes under a holistic framework.

While the best way to realize value individual workflows and tasks will depend on the specific features of your operations, etc, it's good to put them into the wider context of your overall operation. Automation technology can be used for types of tasks, but those types of tasks may occur across multiple operational areas.

You can begin to use a basic structure to group processes and tasks by area of operation. This can help you to further identify the right mix of technology for your needs. An example of you could be grouping tasks by:

  • Goods handling & transportation
  • Storage & fulfillment
  • Overall operations management & performance management

Now it should be easier to look at individual tasks in a holisticically and understand where you can make the biggest gains in day-to-day operations. As a general rule, you can look for tasks where speed and consistency are important, but there isn't value above the level of competency - think capturing data or physically storing and retrieving inventory.

To put it another way, think about how you can best leverage automation to do more of the low-skilled grunt work, to free up employees' time to focus on work such as quality control tasks, that require unique human abilities such as creativity, or 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.

3. What automation technologies should you evaluate? Thinking about how to balance your tech stack

Now you have a list of processes and tasks that you can start to prioritize, you can start to work backward to evaluate and find the best technology fit. The most successful automation projects combine the two main types of automation (physical automation - mechanical equipment; and process or digital automation - software).

But that doesn't mean you need to try and deploy highly complex full-scale automation on day one. The best solutions and projects are built with scaling and flexibility in mind. You can start with your most critical focus areas, and deploy technology in phases, within your overall process. This allows you to learn and adapt as your maturity and internal knowledge progress.  

  • Examples of using process automation technology would be a warehouse management system (WMS), for real-time inventory management and optimization, tracking items, managing order fulfillment, material and resource monitoring, etc.
  • Examples of using physical automation technology could be using conveyor systems to transport inventory along predetermined routes or using automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to transport heavy inventory around a warehouse, reducing low-value but physically demanding labor.
  • These processes can use different technologies for stronger workflows, for example using data capture technologies together with conveyor belts to help optimize sorting, or monitor stock levels, or integrating your WMS with an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) to optimize stock replenishment and availability.
  • 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.

4. Consider what technologies and competencies will be needed to facilitate or extend the benefits of automation

Beyond operations themselves, to support basic functioning, all automation requires on-site networking, alongside other IT infrastructure for data storage and processing. This can either be housed on-premises, or increasingly offsite via cloud service providers.

But this means alongside training your warehouse staff about new equipment user interfaces etc., you will possibly need to develop new technical competencies to support smooth operations.

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.

5. Consider what you're already doing that can smooth the transition

Warehouse automation doesn't always mean ripping up your current processes and starting from scratch. Very often, it's simply about making an existing process faster and more consistent. That means you can look to expand and optimize what you already know works. This can help you plan your change management strategy, as well as begin to map out the broad technical scope of a potential implementation.

  • For example, if you want to continue with your existing WMS, do you need to add a new module to manage the increased data management needs?
  • Do the new technologies you're considering provide flexible APIs to allow for the necessary integrations needed to achieve the functionality and workflows you want? This will also support your holistic framework as your automation maturity increases over time and your tech stack grows more complex.
  • Can you begin to gather existing data about your operations to use in the next phase of detailed planning?
  • For example, at AutoStore, we can use your real data from your current operations to run a data simulation. By changing different configuration parameters in the simulator for our cube storage solution, we can provide you with a highly accurate demonstration of performance output and demonstrate how things such as peak seasons like Christmas or Black Friday, would impact real-world throughput in your warehouse or distribution center.

Considering these key areas internally early on can really help to shape internal discussions and help with alignment across multiple stakeholders. It will then set you up to move to more advanced planning, with the opportunity to clearly set shared expectations and priorities before kicking off advanced project planning.

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