Warehouse automation is the use of technology to improve and optimize the handling of goods in a warehouse. It can refer to the use of robotics and conveyor belts, improved picking and packing, or installing applications that can predict the most efficient routes and delivery schedules for each package.
The goal of warehouse automation is to improve accuracy, speed and efficiency in the warehouse and cut down on operational costs in the process. Read on for an overview of the different types of automation, the benefits they offer, and some best practices to keep in mind.
What is Warehouse Automation?
Warehouse automation involves finding labor-intensive and repetitive tasks related to receiving, storing and moving inventory in a warehouse and creating systems that reduce the need for manual labor and data entry.
Some examples of warehouse automation include conveyors and sortation systems and shuttle systems that utilize mobile robots to retrieve and deliver products across different levels. However, modern warehouse automation is not limited to robotics. One of the most popular and practical ways to employ automation in the warehouse is with a warehouse management system (WMS), a software that allows warehouse managers to monitor things like inventory levels, workers’ schedules, productivity, the order fulfillment process, and delivery schedules in real-time from one central dashboard.
How Does Warehouse Automation Work?
Warehouse automation works by combining warehouse automation software systems, robotic systems and artificial intelligence to simplify complex tasks and improve speed and efficiency on the warehouse floor. The goal, ultimately, is to meet customer demand and achieve customer satisfaction and retention. After all, in this fast-paced world where people expect to receive their packages in a matter of days, the businesses that can prepare and deliver their products the fastest retain more customers.
Most businesses start with warehouse management systems first. Eventually, they integrate their chosen systems with other tools so they can manage a wide range of tasks. There are several different categories of warehouse automation, including:
- Basic warehouse automation: These are simple tools that assist workers with manual tasks, such as conveyor belts or carousels that take packages from one point to another.
- Warehouse system automation: This includes WMS programs, data analytics, and machine learning tools that collect and organize data, as well as allow managers to create more efficient systems for storage and order fulfillment.
- Mechanized warehouse automation: These are robotic equipment that helps warehouse workers with tasks and processes that may be too time-consuming or labor-intensive to perform alone. For example, shelf loader bots can lift entire racks of items and bring them to a sorting station.
- Advanced warehouse automation: This makes use of both basic tools and robotics with automation systems. In most modern warehouses, automation equipment and systems are not standalone tools but rather integrated parts of a larger system for improving efficiency in the warehouse.
What Warehouse Processes Can Be Automated?
The following warehouse processes can be improved by automation:
Types of Warehouse Automation Technology
There are many different types of warehouse automation technology, each with unique benefits, including:
- Goods-to-Person (GTP) solutions: This utilizes machines that pick up materials and take them to workers in the warehouse. The workers are then in charge of assembling and packing the products. GTP includes solutions like conveyors, vertical lift systems, and Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AR/RS). The latter is a type of fulfillment technology that makes use of material-carrying vehicles like shuttles to retrieve and store items for production.
- Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light Systems: These types of systems use mobile barcode scanners to guide warehouse pickers on where to pick up and put down certain items. The scanners are synced with digital displays that light up and reduce the amount of time spent walking and searching for items. This is especially useful for high-volume warehouses.
- Voice Picking and Tasking: Using speech recognition software and wireless headsets, warehouse workers can “pick-by-voice” and eliminate their reliance on handheld scanners.
- Sortation Systems: This involves automatically identifying items on a conveyer and sending them to the right location using sensors and scanners. This helps speed up processes involved in order fulfillment, including receiving packages, packing them, and shipping them off to their respective buyers.
- Auto-Guided Vehicles (AGVs): Using magnetic strips, sensors, or wires, these vehicles travel through the warehouse on a fixed path, taking loads from point A to point B without the need for human guidance. AGVs work best in large, open warehouses with minimal foot traffic.
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs): Like AGVs, these travel around the warehouse carrying items from one area to another. However, unlike AGVs, these make use of GPS systems to navigate their environment and avoid obstacles.
When to Automate Your Warehouse?
You should automate your warehouse when you find yourself struggling with the following:
- You experience order delays due to limited warehouse employees
- Your day-to-day warehouse operations are labor-intensive and take up too much time and energy to fulfill
- You find that you can no longer keep up with the number of work orders that come in every day
- You can no longer keep track of your inventory
- Finding important information causes delays
- Your customer satisfaction and retention numbers start to dwindle
Benefits of Warehouse Automation
The aforementioned issues in your warehouse performance can all be traced back to manual processing. Though you may feel that you should get by with tried and tested methods, oftentimes, outdated processes can no longer keep up with the demands of the modern world. In turn, you experience delays and errors that don’t just hassle your workers but tarnish your reputation as a reliable business or service provider.
If you need more reasons to make the switch to warehouse automation systems, consider the following benefits:
Reduces Operating Costs
Automation is a game-changing technology that will help you reduce operational costs and make your business more efficient. This is done by eliminating human error and giving workers more time to focus on more important tasks.
Even amid a labor shortage, you can maintain a lean team of warehouse workers by equipping them with tools and processes to make their jobs easier. When tasks require less time and effort to complete, workers can do more in a day. On top of this, warehouse automation can reduce safety risks associated with workers rushing, and, as a result, keep workers healthy and happy.
Enhances Inventory Management
When you can monitor your products’ every movement, you can reduce the risk of losing and misplacing items as well as relay accurate information to your customers. This helps to improve customer service and satisfaction as well.
Maximizes Warehouse Space
A lot of warehouse space goes underutilized. By implementing autonomous vehicles and conveyor systems, you can improve the flow of operations in your warehouse and allocate more space for new products, workstations, and the like.
When you can create more efficient workflows, you end up using less energy to keep your facilities up and running. You also minimize wastage, take up less space to run your operations, and lower your operating costs.
The Drawbacks of Warehouse Automation
As helpful as warehouse automation systems are in streamlining operations, they also come with some considerable implementation costs. You’ll have to be prepared to cover the upfront costs of installing machines and software applications, as well as onboarding all your staff. Maintenance and repairs of your robotics and other equipment may also put a dent in your budget, stall your operations for a few hours and cause delays in processing orders.
How to Automate Your Warehouse
To prepare yourself for a warehouse automation solution, follow these steps:
Determine Your Objectives
What do you want to get out of implementing automation? Make a timeline of milestones you want to reach, KPIs to measure, and business goals you want to accomplish by adopting automation for your business.
Put Together an Implementation Committee
Get in touch with all relevant stakeholders, including your operations managers and engineers. You’ll want to know what your warehouse’s capabilities are, what challenges you face and what areas can be improved by introducing new technology. This step will help you identify what kinds of systems will work best for you.
Review Your Inventory Control Systems
Inventory control is a crucial and necessary component of warehouse operations. Before introducing automation into your business, make sure to review and rectify all standard operating procedures related to inventory management, including purchasing materials from vendors, receiving shipments and measuring customer satisfaction.
Implement a Warehouse Management System
A warehouse management system is a software used for monitoring and managing inventory levels, warehouse team productivity, order fulfillment progress and shipping progress. These systems provide managers with real-time updates on the warehouse and their employees’ work performance, as well as important data that can aid them in making more informed business decisions!
Find the Right Warehouse Automation for You
Now, it’s time to put all the information you’ve gathered and figure out the best warehouse solutions for you. Make sure the automation systems you choose align with your customers’ demands and your business goals.
Warehouse Automation Best Practices
To make the most out of your warehouse automation systems, make sure to keep the following warehouse automation trends and best practices in mind:
- Don’t skimp on workforce training. You’ll want to make sure your staff knows how to use your new automation systems, otherwise, what’s the point? Spend a considerable amount of time training them to understand how each system works and how they can make their tasks easier.
- Prioritize finding the right WMS. Don’t underestimate the power of a good, user-friendly, and easy-to-integrate WMS. A good system doesn’t just streamline workflows and centralize data, it also integrates with third-party apps and systems for a more seamless workflow.
- Optimize your warehouse with the Internet of Things. The IoT is a network that connects multiple smart devices within your facility, including sensors, RFID tags, trackers, and the like. By utilizing IoT, you can more easily collect data from your systems and improve your inventory control. Doing so also gives you a constant, real-time view of all operations in your warehouse.
- Take advantage of voice assistants. Help your employees do more by keeping their hands free as they move around your facility. Voice assistants and wireless headpieces make it easier for staff to navigate your warehouse and find everything they need to do their job.
- Consider replacing conveyors with mobile robots. Conveyors are a staple in any warehouse. But new technology is looking to replace or supplement this age-old automation technique. Today, there are mobile robots that can transport goods faster and more efficiently than conveyors, especially since they have more mobility across the entire warehouse floor.
How Much Does It Cost to Automate Your Warehouse?
The cost of automating a warehouse depends on the size and complexity of the project. Generally, though, warehouse automation can cost anywhere between several thousand to millions of dollars.
Warehouse automation technology is a great way to improve your warehouse operations. By automating tasks such as order picking, packing, and shipping, you can save time and money while improving your accuracy and efficiency. We’ve outlined the different types of warehouse automation technology and how to automate your warehouse in this post.
Warehouse Automation FAQs
How do I start warehouse automation?
You can start automating your warehouse by implementing a warehouse management system.
What technology do warehouses use?
Warehouses utilize a wide variety of technologies to automate and streamline tasks, including conveyors, shuttles, voice recognition software, autonomous robots, drones, and smart devices.
Will warehouses ever be fully automated?
There is no telling when all warehouses will become fully automated. While the world’s first fully-automated warehouse was introduced in China in 2021, a report showed that over 80 percent of warehouses today do not use any kind of automation at all.