The coronavirus pandemic has caused a dramatic interest in warehouse automation over the last two years. With skilled labor difficult to acquire, and demand for goods drastically increasing, companies are looking at ways to improve efficiency, accurately track inventory, and reduce costs. Warehouse automation can provide all of these benefits, but is it right for your business?
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 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.
WHAT CAN AUTOMATION DO FOR ME?
There are many benefits to automating your warehouse. Automation can increase efficiency and productivity of workers by minimizing manual tasks as well as accurately track inventory. Automation also increases worker safety by performing labor-intensive or potentially dangerous tasks.
Warehouse Management Software can integrate with a full ERP system to give customers a complete order-to-delivery view of their product by allowing them to see where that order is at each step in the fulfillment process. The ability to automatically generate spot counts, cycle counts, and accurate inventory quantities is another benefit that can produce dramatic time and costs savings.
Automating inventory control has the benefit of maximizing warehouse space by increasing height utilization. If your warehouse maintains large quantities of stock, storing that inventory vertically safely and efficiently can have a dramatic effect on your available space.
The use of bar code scanners and mobile computers increase productivity while reducing mispicks and inventory stock errors. Material handling equipment (MHE) is some of the easiest automation to implement and can have a positive effect on worker performance. Many systems today can utilize a smartphone camera to read barcodes and integrate with the WMS for accurate picking/packing.
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.
Are your existing warehouse processes labor intensive?
Do your processes require workers to frequently walk about the warehouse to retrieve inventory?
Are your customer orders delayed because of labor shortages?
Is your inventory count accurate?
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.
ARE THERE DRAWBACKS TO AUTOMATING MY WAREHOUSE?
One of the biggest drawbacks to switching to an automated warehouse system is the initial up-front cost. Warehouse Automation can pay for itself with a positive ROI in time, but many companies do not have the startup capital for such an endeavor.
Another factor to keep in mind is having the expertise to install and maintain automated systems. Many vendors will supply technical support as part of the sale, but it is a good idea to hire workers who are knowledgeable in the type of automation you are using to keep it running effectively.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Kelly is currently completing an internship with ASCI. He is a senior at the University of Alaska Anchorage finishing his final semester for a bachelor’s degree in Global Logistics Supply Chain Management with a minor in Computer Information Systems. He is also scheduled to receive an Occupational Endorsement Certificate in Business Analytics. His experience in logistics lies in oilfield supply, inventory consignments, and air cargo shipping.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 348-1610 if you would like to set up a free consultation appointment to help with your business’ inventory management needs.