Article > A Guide to Warehouse Automation and Technology

A Guide to Warehouse Automation and Technology

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Advanced Warehouse Automation Technologies You Should Know About

Following the rise of the Industry 4.0 technology boom during the COVID-19 crisis, the logistics and shipping industry continues to depend on warehouse automation. Novel solutions like warehouse management software make modern processes more efficient than ever, leaving the days of human error and slow delivery behind.

If you haven’t incorporated warehouse automation solutions into your operations, this introduction to new technologies will highlight why you need them.

What Is Warehouse Automation?

Warehouse automation is the process of computerizing inventory management and increasing efficiency for repetitive tasks, such as physical work or data entry. This software eliminates the need for human intervention through artificial intelligence.

What Is Digital Automation?

Digital automation uses software to process real-time data and manage inventory tracking. Some of these processes might include:

  • Radiofrequency identification (RFID)
  • Mobile barcode scanning
  • Live supply chain updates
  • Resource planning

These digital processes provide multiple benefits, such as:

  • Increased inventory accuracy
  • Faster shipping times
  • Reduced operational costs
  • Enhanced security
  • Improved customer service

With that in mind, digital automation technology is costly. Upfront costs include the software, necessary hardware, employee training programs and maintenance costs.

In addition, going digital can potentially increase cybersecurity risks. However, data encryption can typically mitigate these dangers. 

What Is Physical Automation in the Warehouse?

Physical automation in the warehouse involves using robots and machines to increase workflow efficiency and perform manual tasks. These responsibilities might include robotic picking, automatic sorting and advanced retrieval systems.

Using mobile robots can provide many benefits, such as:

  • Enhanced reliability
  • Scalable systems
  • Improved and more accurate performance

However, like digital automation, physical automation is expensive, given that few people have experience handling robots. In addition, robotic solutions demand intense planning that most low-volume warehouses cannot afford.

How Does Warehouse Automation Work?

Warehouse automation works by using software and autonomous robots to automate repetitive or administrative tasks. Basic automation can be achieved through warehouse management systems (WMS) that streamline daily warehouse operations such as:

  • Inventory tracking
  • Order shipment and fulfillment 
  • Coordination with shipping partners
  • Data analysis

Depending on inventory volume, some warehouses may use robotic retrieval systems to move cargo from point A to point B. However, most warehouse automation systems for smaller businesses simplify repetitive tasks by automating them.

There are four primary types of warehouse automation, including the following:

  • Basic warehouse automation: Simple technology that automates repetitive tasks (e.g., a conveyor belt that moves inventory from one point to another)
  • Warehouse system automation: Machine-learning-based technology that automates specific tasks (e.g., a system that picks the appropriate inventory items to fulfill upcoming orders)
  • Mechanized warehouse automation: Robotic automation that assists in specific procedures (e.g., autonomous robots that deliver items to human pickers)
  • Advanced warehouse automation: Mechanized warehouse robotics that replaces labor-intensive tasks (e.g., robotic forklift systems)

Why Should You Automate Your Warehouse?

You should automate your warehouse to reduce human error in manual processes, prevent inventory loss, meet customer expectations and many other reasons. Below are the benefits of warehouse automation:

  • Increased task speed: Software solutions with inventory control can tell you where each item is located and what you need to fulfill a particular order. Employees receive notifications and updates on their mobile devices, increasing productivity and efficiency.
  • Improved safety: Advanced automation moves products around on its own, so it limits the need for manual equipment across the facility and reduces the chances of an accident.
  • Maximized space: Automated storage and retrieval systems with material-carrying vehicles decrease required warehouse space, enabling warehouses to stock more inventory.
  • Reduced errors: Modern warehouses with inventory control can notify warehouse owners of low stock with incredible accuracy, limiting shipping errors and keeping fulfillment on track.
  • Reduced labor costs: Because automated warehouses demand less manual labor, warehouse owners can spend less on recruitment, training, and full-time employment.

 

Types of Advanced Warehouse Automation Technology

Different systems could benefit you depending on your specific warehouse processes. Consider the following product solutions.

Goods-to-Person (GTP)

GTP systems utilize vertical lift systems, conveyor belts and carousels to increase warehouse picking speed and overall efficiency.

Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV)

This mechanized automation system uses magnetic strips and sensors to navigate throughout your warehouse and facilitate item picking. They are ideal for smaller warehouses with minimal human traffic.

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR)

AMRs are similar to AGVs with the addition of a GPS. Users can create AMR routes using laser guidance systems to avoid blockages and obstacles. Compared to AGVs, AMRs can navigate more complex layouts.

Automated Storage And Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)

This fulfillment technology employs material-carrying vehicles, loaders and shuttles that store and retrieve orders. AS/RS systems are best for high-volume storage locations with limited space.

Voice Picking and Tasking

Pick-by-voice systems enable users to curate optimized pick paths for picking or putting away an item. With this system, workers don’t need scanners to find inventory.

How to Automate Your Warehouse

Automating your warehouse processes requires ample planning with stakeholders and managers. You can quickly get started with these simple steps:

  1. Develop a support committee: Appoint automation experts who can audit your existing warehouse operations and determine where implementing WMS can be most useful. Consider tapping third-party experts and software engineers with experience in supply chain automation. 
  2. Collect the appropriate data: Evaluate your current data collection processes. Ask questions like: how quickly can you retrieve information regarding your inventory? Is this information accurate? The answers to these questions will determine how best to implement new strategies.
  3. Review your inventory control systems: Consider your standard operating procedures (SOP) for managing inventory. Define each process, including shipping, fulfillment and customer satisfaction. Do these existing processes satisfy your key performance indicators? If necessary, consider what changes you need to make to improve these SOPs. 
  4. Choose the appropriate WMS: What WMS you choose ultimately depends on your overarching business goals. Do you want to reduce human error? Is your fulfillment process slow? Where you need the most improvement will tell you what automation system will work best.
  5. Implement your new system: Most WMS platforms are intuitive, but others require intensive work and training. You’ll need to learn how to use the new equipment, especially if your new system requires physical machines.

Benefits of Advanced Warehouse Automation

A robust warehouse management system can help modern warehouses by offering the following benefits:

  • Streamlined resource distribution and utilization
  • Reduced storage and operational costs
  • Increased productivity and overall efficiency
  • Improved employee and customer satisfaction
  • Fewer workplace accidents
  • Optimized warehouse space
  • Limited manual labor
  • Few to no shipping errors

Latest Trends in Warehouse Automation Technologies

Warehousing industry trends change over time, and it’s important to keep up to stay competitive. Below are a few popular warehousing trends to keep an eye on:

Big Data and Predictive Analytics

AI-powered and machine-learning tools are an excellent way to improve forecast accuracy. Through predictive analysis, managers can upgrade warehouse equipment on time, identify performance issues and prevent delays. Advanced systems with these capabilities can also shut equipment down before it fails, saving thousands in repair costs.

IoT Data Collection

You can liken IoT data collection to optimizing a smart home in warehouse settings, where sensors collect data to improve warehouse environments. 

For instance, smart lighting systems can turn warehouse lights on and off depending on the time of day and who is present on site. Alternatively, smart HVAC systems can adjust warehouse temperatures according to new inventory or present employees.

Autonomous Warehouse Robotics

Autonomous warehouse robotics provide impressive cost savings because they require minimal human interaction. Warehouse robots can pick orders, conduct inventory checks and move items depending on your needs – all on their own.

Blockchain for Warehouse Automation and Traceability

Blockchains act like digital ledgers in warehouse settings, making real-time updates accessible and shareable amongst managers and stakeholders. They can notify order recipients when to expect deliveries and managers when to refresh stocks.

The blockchain’s traceability is especially advantageous to food and beverage businesses with time-sensitive stocks.

Remote Warehouse Management

Work-from-home positions became increasingly popular following the pandemic, so it’s no surprise that remote warehouse management within distribution centers is now more common than ever. Remote management simplifies diagnostics – owners can identify functionality problems off-site and plan repairs the following morning.

Key Takeaways

As technology advances, the opportunities warehouse automation presents are virtually endless. Consider these takeaways if you want to strengthen your supply chain through warehouse automation.

  • Warehouse automation can be digital or physical. Digital automation involves anything from data collection to real-time inventory updates, while physical automation dispatches robots and machines that can move items.
  • There are many reasons to use automation tools. They can increase efficiency and productivity, guarantee safety in the workplace, lower warehouse costs, reduce human error and maximize space.
  • Creating an automation strategy involves developing an implementation team, reviewing your existing processes and choosing the appropriate solution.
  • Keeping up with warehouse automation trends can keep operations efficient and competitive. Consider trends like the blockchain, predictive analysis, remote management, IoT data collection and other cutting-edge technologies.

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Advanced Warehouse Automation Technology FAQs

What are the latest technologies used in warehouses?

The latest technologies used in warehouses include AI-powered predictive analysis, warehouse robotics, smart setups, improved traceability through the blockchain and remote management. 

What technology is used in the WMS?

WMS typically employs technology like data collection software or autonomous robots. What technology you should use depends on your warehouse’s specific requirements.

What are the types of automation technology?

The current technologies warehouse owners use for automation include:

  • Automatic guided vehicles and robots for navigating warehouse aisles
  • Voice picking for hands-off inventory tracking
  • AS/RS systems to transport goods within the warehouse

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