What is Warehouse Automation?
Warehouse automation solutions can help reduce the need for manual labor and improve accuracy and speed in the fulfillment of orders. While automation in warehouses is still a fairly new concept, there are already a wide range of solutions available and several warehouses have begun adopting as much automation as possible. Especially within the recent COVID years where supply chain and logistics companies were expected to double (and sometimes triple) their workloads. Warehouse automation refers to the use of technology and automation to improve the efficiency and productivity of warehouse operations. This can include the use of mobile robots and other automated equipment and softwares to handle tasks such as picking, packing, moving and tracking inventory, and shipment tracking.
How Does Warehouse Automation Work?
Most warehouse automation systems will use a combination of software, sensors, barcode scanners, robotics, and other technologies to track the movement of goods within the warehouse. This data is then used by the software to generate reports and provide real-time updates on inventory levels, order status, and other important information. The specific functionality of a warehouse automation solution can vary depending on the specific needs of the warehouse and the type of software being used.
Why Small and Mid-Size Warehouses Can and Should Automate
While automation may seem like something only large-scale warehouses can afford, automation truly is for all warehouse facility sizes. Advantages such as automated storage and retrieval (AS/RS) systems are becoming wildly popular in any sized warehouse. Plus automation protects your warehouse as well. It both reduces human error and risk, while speeding up your operations and offering a higher rate of efficiency. We have all seen within logistics a technology upheaval is taking place, and warehouse automation is only going to improve. That’s why it’s key to get in on the ground floor and begin automating as many processes as you can so your warehouse can stay ahead of the competition no matter its size.
Benefits of Small-Scale Warehouse Automation
The client experience is everything. And the more automated your warehouse is the more you can handle increased client demand. Warehouses who implement automation can do more with less and minimize human error. They get benefits like:
- Enhanced data
- Low stockout events
- Highly optimized warehouse space
- Improved inventory control
- A high level of workplace safety and employee satisfaction
- Reduced operational costs
- Higher operating speeds and accuracy rates
With all of these benefits warehouse automation simply can’t be ignored and it’s quickly becoming a solution your warehouse needs or you may fall behind.
When to Automate Your Warehouse
But how do I know when is the right time to automate my warehouse? Between peak season and trying to keep things up and running, making such a switch in your technology may seem daunting. We recommend reviewing several factors when considering automation. If you see a rise in client order delays, inaccurate inventory counts, using spreadsheets to manage your warehouse, or if you have a limited workforce yet your procedures are labor-intensive, it is time to automate. To do so, you’ll want to examine your supply chain from head to toe, identify gaps in your physical and technological processes, and recruit an expert to help you make the switch.
Types of Warehouse Automation Technology
There are several types of warehouse automation solutions which can help you become automated. We’ve listed a few below:
- Inventory Management Software: These types of software allow you to track inventory using processes of automation such as barcode scanning, inventory optimization, stock notifications, and report generation.
- Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS): This can include tote shuttles and product carrying vehicles to retrieve products.
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs): These robots use GPS to develop routes through your warehouse at max efficiency and are safe to operate with humans around them.
- Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs): These vehicles follow a fixed path within your warehouse using magnetic strips or sensors and cannot be used with spaces that have a high volume of human traffic.
- Automated Sortation Systems: This conveyor system will both identify an item and move it to the required warehouse location using barcodes, scanners, and RFID tags.
- Goods-to-Person (GTP): Inclusive of carousels, conveyors, and lift systems, to help improve the speed of warehouse picking.
Challenges of Warehouse Automation
While warehouse automation is highly needed in any warehouse size, you should first understand significant capital is usually required to get started. Not only in purchasing the equipment but in order to get the help needed for your business to set it up correctly and get it running smoothly. And with any equipment there is always the chance of failure within these processes. And if your equipment goes down, you can get unscheduled down time which can hurt your businesses delivery and efficiency rates. The best way you can avoid these downtimes is to schedule regular maintenance on your automated systems. There are third-party companies you can contract to do this service for you. If you keep your equipment regularly maintained it is highly unlikely to break down.
Ways to Automate Small and Growing Warehouse Operations
If you take a highly strategic approach to your application of automation you can benefit from these processes quickly. In many ways these solutions pay for themselves once they are up and running. Here are four steps to help you in your automation journey:
#1 Assess the Efficiency of Existing Operations
You must understand where you are at today in order to prioritize the automation you purchase first. This means you need to review your operational goals and understand where these goals succeed and where they fall short. If your workers struggle to do their work quickly, or you have continually been surprised by empty product stock, this can give you some idea of what automation will help your warehouse the most.
#2 Search Out Solutions That Increase Worker Efficiency
Your workers need technology which is simple to use. Technology which requires a high rate of training to understand will slow down your processes not only when you implement, but when you get new workers as well. So make sure the technology you choose is easy to use and to implement with a highly user-friendly interface.
#3 Find Ways to Improve Overall Workflow
Once you have provided your employees with technology that enhances their productivity, you need to evaluate your workflows. Review what labor-intensive and tedious tasks could be handled by AMRs (or other automation) instead of your employees. Reviewing the workflows in your warehouse allows you to process what is outdated and what works so you can implement automation accordingly.
#4 Select Technology That Can Grow With Your Business
As you automate, you will grow. It is often a result of the efficiency which comes with automation. Knowing this it is a good idea to start with software automation first which will grow and expand as you do, then begin adding robot technology into your warehouse as your business grows. Finding a partner who can work as a strategic advisor to you in this warehouse automation will be key in successfully implementing these practices.
Warehouse Automation Best Practices
As you look to automate your warehouse, we have identified a few best practices to help you along the way.
Invest in Scalable Solutions
Whether it be a warehouse automation technology, or robotics these solutions need to have the capability of scaling with you. Meaning you should have no problem integrating these technologies into future warehouse locations, teaching new employees, or evolving with supply chain partnerships.
Integrate with a WMS
Any automation software you utilize should integrate directly into your WMS platform. These solutions specifically should help you manage and track inventory as well as offer dashboards and reports with key inventory insights.
Perform Continuous Cycle Counts
Once you implement automated data collection systems you can use barcode scanning and RFID tags to help you automate your continuous cycle counts. With this technology you can validate the inventory levels in your WMS and check for any discrepancies using reporting dashboards.
Automate Data Collection
This is a great place to start when it comes to automating your warehouse. Cloud-based solutions which use barcode scanners are one of the simplest, low-cost paths to automation. Starting here allows you to eliminate human error and use the barcode scanners to capture highly needed performance and inventory data which can be used for further analysis.
When you optimize receiving you gain the ability to identify incoming product information such as dimensions, classifications, and packaging. Using this data, your warehouse automation triggers specific rules to determine where to store and how to handle these products. Automating as much as you can from the moment a product enters your warehouse makes your workflows highly streamlined down the road.
Evaluate Warehouse Design
Some don’t realize to be successful many physical automation solutions like AS/AR systems do need space to be as successful as possible. Which means you may need to rework your warehouse with the help of a solution vendor so you are optimized for automation.
Selecting the Right Automation Solutions
We already know automating your warehouse is a quick way to improve efficiency and speed, but automation has many different solutions in the mix that may be right for some warehouses and not for others. When you invest in warehouse automation you should first decide the process in which you want to automate and what solutions to add first which can help build up to other solutions.
There are several levels of automation solutions to pick from including basic automation which includes scanning systems and basic conveyor systems. System automation which involves a software based system often to automate inventory, order picking, and performance reports. Mechanized automation which includes physical robotics. And advanced automation which means you use automation solutions from all of the previous three types. With how many automation solutions are out there, and the fact that these solutions are expected to grow tenfold in the coming years, you need to find an automation expert to help you along the way so you can pick the right automation solution in the right order. Especially because “right” will look different for every warehouse.
With automation technology, warehouses are no longer considered slow growing and highly manual work. Innovative automation will continue to propel the logistics industry as demand grows higher and worker availability plummets. Now, whether your warehouse is large or small, you have the benefit of using automation to get more tasks done with less. In fact, warehouse automation stats show automating your logistical systems makes a huge difference when it comes to warehouse efficiency. Deloitte did an analysis of supply chains and found, “79% of companies with high-performing supply chains achieve revenue growth superior to the average within their industries.” Which means if you don’t have automation up and running yet, it’s definitely something you should get started right away!
Small-Scale Warehouse Automation FAQs
How Much Does It Cost to Automate a Warehouse?
Warehouse automation costs depend on the needs and size of your warehouse. You will need to first understand your own processes, and the software or robotics you’ll need to improve them, before you’ll get a scope of cost.
What Are the Types of Warehouse Automation?
When it comes to warehouse automation most different solutions can fall within two types: process automation and physical automation. While physical automation is specific to the process of moving products and often uses robots, process automation is about gathering and utilizing data so daily tasks can be automated and reporting presented with key insights.
Are There Any Fully Automated Warehouses?
Yes. Some warehouses are known as dark warehouses. The name comes from the fact that these warehouses don’t need lighting because they have no operators working inside of them. These dark warehouses are common in the automotive, food, and eCommerce industries.