One day, robots will run most functions within a warehouse. Outfitted with the latest in artificial intelligence, they’ll be able to manage warehouses very efficiently. However, we’re not there yet. In the interim, you have to find technologies that can give you more flexibility and agility, while making the lives of employees and customers better.
Automation is the Big Umbrella
Underlying all technology in a warehouse is automation. Automated processes, tools and machines make your daily warehouse life easier. Warehouse management software (WMS) has grown in its functionality over the past 10 years, often incorporating some of the latest technologies to make running your business more efficient. No doubt you already use some of these features in your warehouse operations. Let’s examine a few different aspects of this type of automation and identify ways to know if your organization is ready for it.
At the center of any warehouse automation is WMS. It is the engine that makes your warehouse technology run. Without the right software in place, automated processes wouldn’t be possible.
This is true because WMS incorporates a wide range of your warehouse processes, including receiving and putaway, inventory management, order fulfillment, picking and packing and shipping. In every step, there is an algorithm or a program or an advanced piece of machinery that makes things more efficient and each of these is controlled by WMS.
Since the invention of the conveyor belt, workers and companies have been automating physical procedures in the modern warehouse. Conveyors, lifts and other machines that work to make warehouse employees’ lives easier are the first step in warehouse technology, often referred to as basic automation. These are the types of tools and features you would expect to see in any modern facility.
Other common automated tools include barcode scanners and smart devices. Each was designed to streamline warehouse and eCommerce fulfillment processes to reduce errors.
However, more advanced technology has brought more advanced automation with things like automatic pickers and labeling machines. The most recent introduction and perhaps the most progressive of these technologies is autonomous robots. These can include everything from shelf loaders to forklifts with sensors so that they can operate without human supervision.
There is the concern that so much automation and the advancement of robotics and artificial intelligence could lead to reduction in the workforce. A recent article in MIT Technology Review, discussed this topic, and concluded that while that may eventually happen, there is still a large gap between the number of warehouses that have robots and the ones that don’t.
The adoption process is steady, but slow. Additionally, companies view the role of human workers changing in this new workplace, moving from manual labor to more oversight and maintenance of the machines. So, you’re probably not going to lose your job to a robot, you’re just going to end up doing something different.
Committing to Automation
Automating warehouses comes with an upfront cost that is off-putting to many business owners. Especially since the true benefit of the automation won’t be felt for a few months or a year until after implementation. However, there are some tell-tale signs that your company is ready to take the plunge. Review the list below and see if any of these instances apply to you and your organization.
- You’re still using a legacy warehouse management system that relies on manual inventory counts that are housed in spreadsheets.
- Your order fulfillment capacity is declining.
- Your warehouse processes and procedures are labor-intensive.
- Your inventory counts are always inaccurate.
- You’re receiving negative feedback from customers regarding shipping delays.
- Your total number of employees fluctuates due to high/low demand or seasons.
If any of these sound like your organization, it might seriously be time to investigate WMS options. In the long run, increasing customer satisfaction, ensuring employee morale and maintaining accurate inventory counts will lead to more success across the board; and higher revenue.
There has always been a slight resistance to technology. However, it has become apparent in the past decade that in order to be competitive, successful and profitable you must adopt technology and automation to its fullest extent.