by Learie Hercules
Logistics are becoming increasingly driven by technology. Among the most significant trends are automation powered by artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT). These advances have allowed warehouse managers to achieve new levels of efficiency, productivity, and profitability at a time when many businesses are still struggling with staffing shortages and supply chain issues.
Even though warehouse automation can bring considerable benefits, it is not an easy thing to implement. Challenges abound when choosing the right technology, integrating it into the workspace, and overcoming any technical glitches or breakdowns. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome these challenges and ensure a smoother transition to warehouse automation. It just takes a bit of careful planning and strategizing.
- Get the Right Team in Place
- Conduct a Needs Assessment
- Create a Budget
- Choose the Right Vendor(s)
- Start Small, But Think Big
- Assess, Review, and Adapt
What is Warehouse Automation?
Automation generally refers to any robots or software that can perform repetitive tasks, typically without human input.
Some of the biggest advancements in automation have happened over the past 20 years, particularly when it comes to robotics. Smarter, more agile, and most importantly — more cost-effective, robotics have made warehouse operations significantly more efficient, when it is implemented correctly. Some examples of robotics use in warehousing include:
- Robotic arms
- Collaborative robots (or co-bots)
- Mobile rack goods-to-person (GTP) robots
- Autonomous vehicles
- Unit load transporters
- Bot sorter arms
Before you worry that increased automation will make human workers obsolete, that actually has not been the case. Automation works best alongside workers, freeing them from labor-intensive tasks and giving them more time to focus on more important priorities. The safety benefits of automation are also extensive, providing fewer opportunities for workers to get hurt and fewer chances for accidents caused by fatigue.
From these benefits, warehouse automation has grown steadily over the last few years. While the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly sped up this transition, it was already in-process long before.
The Challenges of Warehouse Automation
While the benefits of warehouse automation are undeniable, the process is not without its pitfalls, especially when it comes to implementation. Below are some of the most common challenges with warehouse automation that managers are likely to encounter:
Your facility will likely need a customized approach to suit your specific needs. Depending on the scale of your operations and the level of customization required, full implementation can take a year or more.
Many of the latest automation technologies require a high upfront investment just to get going. In addition, there will likely be ongoing costs as you update systems, purchase new equipment, and expand implementation. On average, it can take as much as ten years before you start getting a decent ROI.
Some automation technologies are not well suited for integration with older systems. This can cause a lot of headaches not just for your IT department, but also for your floor workers who must adapt to the new systems.
Development in automation technologies is currently happening at a breakneck speed. The problem with this is that some systems are already outdated by the time they become implemented. Unless the system is future-proofed for easy updating, you may be stuck with what you have, or prepare to undergo another expensive investment.
How Managers Can Overcome Warehouse Automation Challenges
The scale of the task to successfully implement warehousing automation is potentially daunting, but the challenges should not discourage you from trying. Warehousing automation is the future and those businesses who fail to adopt will be left behind.
Fortunately, for every challenge, there is an answer — all it takes is a few best practices. Here are some steps you can follow to overcome the challenges listed above.
1. Get the Right Team in Place
Your first step should be assembling an internal team that will oversee the research, planning, implementation, and assessment of your automation project. This team should consist of at least one person from every department that will be affected by the changes. Ensure that they have enough time and space to work on the project while still allowing time for their other responsibilities. Their very first task should be to put together a strategic plan with goals and deadlines for the project.
2. Conduct a Needs Assessment
With your team in place and a rough idea of the road ahead, have them conduct an assessment on current workplace protocols, which areas would benefit from automation, and what types of automation technologies would have the most benefits. Focus on key metrics for measuring performance, such as the time it takes to complete a task, output levels, and downtime for routine maintenance.
3. Create a Budget
Using your internal team’s assessment report, begin working out a budget and bring in other stakeholders for input. Creating a budget can be a complicated process, especially when several people need to sign off on it. Start by breaking down the costs of each part of the project and identify your breakeven point for when you will start to see a return on your investment.
4. Choose the Right Vendor(s)
There are a lot of automation vendors to choose from. Have your internal team compile a list of the most promising ones, which can be slimmed down as you review each option. Look for vendors that specialize in providing automation technologies for the warehousing industry. They should have a good track record and a proven technology that is easy to scale effectively and integrate with other systems. A high level of customer support is also a must.
5. Start Small, But Think Big
When you first begin implementing automation technology in your facility, start with something small that will not dramatically upset your ongoing work protocols. Ensure that your staff are given proper training on how to use the new technology. Take your time with this step and expect that there will be a few glitches. Over time you can scale up implementation and achieve the big-picture view of your project.
6. Assess, Review, and Adapt
In conjunction with the previous step, carry out repeat assessments and reviews of each automation implementation. Measure how they are performing against the key metrics that you worked out earlier. Look for ways you can improve and adapt the technology or how it is implemented. If something is not providing the expected results after several months, scrap it and see if you can find a better solution.
The key thing that warehousing managers need to understand about automation is that it is a complex process with lots of room for missteps. With careful planning and a firm understanding of what your goals are, you can enjoy the competitive advantages that only automation can provide. Those who start the process ahead of their competitors will see huge benefits.
Learie Hercules is the CTO at Smart Warehousing. Learie has vast experience with next-gen technologies and automation. He has worked with multiple wireless technologies, IoT, and cloud platforms with a focus on Big Data, AI, and Machine Learning, for some of the largest wireless carriers and Smart Cities in the world.