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Automating my Warehouse: When is the right time?


As technology continues to move at the speed of light, all businesses continue to constantly examine how can they be more efficient, more cost-effective, faster all while improving customer service. Robotics and Artificial intelligence (AI) are the rage in the logistics and supply chain world but with so much information coming at us from a million directions, how do we know it is the "right" time to automate your business' direction?


Difficult question and will typically involve a major capital investment, but here are some factors you should consider before you pull the trigger.


Let's take a step back and define the concept of automation in warehouse and distribution center operations.


WHAT IS AUTOMATION?


At its most basic definition, automation is a mechanical device, operated electronically, that functions automatically, without continuous input from an operator. Warehouse automation is the process of using mechanical devices to increase the efficiency of warehousing processes with little to no input from humans.


Some Basic Types of Automation Technologies


There are many types of automation in use today, and there are possible solutions for each unique warehouse operation. Some of the different types include goods-to-person technologies, automated storage and retrieval systems, pick-to-light systems, and autonomous mobile robots.


Goods-to-Person Technologies (GTP)


GTP technologies are designed to bring the work to the worker rather than have the worker walking all around the warehouse to get parts and materials. The goods moved can be for manufacturing, processing, or shipping, and automation systems can accommodate almost any dimension and weight. GTP technologies are most commonly integrated with enterprise resource planning (ERP) software so that the system knows what material needs to be moved where. These systems increase efficiency by transporting more material, faster, and more accurately than humans can. Typical GTP systems can include conveyor belts, cranes, and robotic vehicles.


Automated Storage and Retrieval systems (AS/RS)


As the name implies, AS/RS systems can store and retrieve items automatically. These systems are best paired with warehouse management software (WMS) or warehouse execution software (WES). The integrated system will determine which items need to be pulled from storage, and then deliver them to the worker. The AS/RS systems can also store incoming inventory quickly and accurately. AS/RS systems are a good solution for warehouses that wish to minimize floor space and utilize warehouse verticality for storage.


Pick-to-light Systems


Pick-to-light systems combine barcode scanners with digital light displays to show workers the correct location and number of items to pick. Pick-to-light systems can increase worker efficiency by reducing search times and mispicks.


Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)


AMRs use advanced guidance systems, including GPS and lasers, to navigate through the warehouse. AMRs are also being used in healthcare and retail to assist staff and improve customer service. They are more advanced than Automatic Guided Vehicles, which require magnetic strips or sensors to be embedded in the floor. AMRs are also better than AGVs at navigating warehouses that may be more crowded or have a lot of human traffic.


OK, so there is Automation 101 crash course. Now, let dive in to the logic and factors that drive a business to consider and implement these types of systems.


The Changing Landscape of Warehousing


Traditionally, warehouses have operated under manual management, relying on human operators to execute essential tasks such as item selection, packaging, sorting and inventory oversight. Basic tools like hand pallets and jacks were the norm for moving and transporting products within these facilities. Although this approach has proven effective over time, particularly in terms of cost reduction, the emergence of ecommerce, rising customer expectations for rapid deliveries and the necessity for meticulous inventory control have steered in new complexities that a solely manual approach may struggle to handle.


In the contemporary landscape, it has become paramount for companies across various sectors, including third-party logistics, automotive, healthcare, retail and ecommerce, to embrace process automation. This transition ensures streamlined workflows, increase efficiency and, ultimately, a more substantial return on investment.


Identifying the Need for Automation


Traditionally, warehouses have operated under manual management, relying on human operators to execute essential tasks such as item selection, packaging, sorting and inventory oversight. Basic tools like hand pallets and jacks were the norm for moving and transporting products within these facilities. Although this approach has proven effective over time, particularly in terms of cost reduction, the emergence of e-commerce, rising customer expectations for rapid deliveries and the necessity for meticulous inventory control have steered in new complexities that a solely manual approach may struggle to handle.


In the contemporary landscape, it has become paramount for companies across various sectors, including third-party logistics, automotive, healthcare, retail and e-commerce, to embrace process automation. This transition ensures streamlined workflows, increase efficiency and, ultimately, a more substantial return on investment.


In the intricate landscape of modern business, companies grapple with a multitude of challenges within their warehouse operations, often oblivious to their existence. It is important to understand that to overcome these obstacles is possible with the recognition of their presence, followed by a comprehensive understanding of how each challenge can be effectively addressed through the implementation of automation solutions.


  • Fluctuating Demand: Businesses that experience seasonal fluctuations or sudden rise in demand can receive help from warehouse automation. Automated systems can manage varying workloads more efficiently, ensuring that orders are fulfilled accurately and promptly even during peak times.

  • High Error Rates: Human errors are inevitable in manual operations in warehouses, leading to order inaccuracies, shipping mistakes and inventory discrepancies. Automation introduces precision and consistency, significantly reducing the chances of errors and enhancing customer satisfaction.

  • Inventory Management Challenges: Keeping right inventory quantities is vital for minimizing stockouts and overstock situations in the warehouses. Warehouse automation systems equipped with real-time tracking and inventory control capabilities can help to track stock levels and enhance demand forecasting accuracy.

  • Order Fulfillment Speed: The demand for faster order fulfillment has become a norm in the e-commerce era. Automated systems, such as robotic pickers and conveyor belts, can expedite order processing, reducing the time it takes for products to reach customers.

  • Safety Concerns: In environments where heavy lifting or repetitive tasks are involved, worker safety is paramount. By automating these tasks, businesses can create a safer work environment and reduce the risk of workplace injuries.

  • Space Optimization: Warehouses often deal with space constraints, and automation can help maximize storage and operational efficiency. Vertical storage systems, automated racking, and goods-to-person technologies can optimize space utilization.


Apart from the above points rising labor costs, wherein a substantial budget allocation is directed towards manual workforce, the consideration of automation emerges as imperative.


Embracing automated systems can alleviate dependence on human labor, thereby releasing resources for other mission-critical domains. Additionally, as businesses expand, the challenge of accommodating augmented workloads through manual operations underscores the necessity of warehouse automation, ensuring efficient scalability. Moreover, the incorporation of automation not only furnishes data-driven insights via its data collection and analysis capabilities, facilitating the identification of bottlenecks and workflow optimization, but also positions enterprises favorably within competitive landscapes, as rivals increasingly adopt automation for heightened agility and responsiveness to evolving market dynamics.


WHAT DO I NEED TO DO TO AUTOMATE MY WAREHOUSE?


Before you decide whether automation is right for your business, you should ask several questions to determine if it is time for an upgrade.


  1. Are your existing warehouse processes labor intensive?

  2. Do your processes require workers to frequently walk about the warehouse to retrieve inventory?

  3. Are your customer orders delayed because of labor shortages?

  4. Is your inventory count accurate?

  5. Are you still using manual data entry, such as spreadsheets, to track orders and inventory?


After you decide you are ready to upgrade to an automated warehouse, you should look into the type and scale of automation that would work best for your business. Make sure to thoroughly research the many vendors available, or hire third-party experts who can provide you with advice and assistance with data collection, installation, operation, and maintenance of your system.

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