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    Top 5 Trends in Warehouse Automation

    Posted by: Bill Denbigh | November 29, 2022

    Trends in Warehouse Automation

    As we near the end of the year, great supply chain leaders take the time to reflect on what took place in 2022 to help them improve their warehouse management in 2023. In an earlier blog post, we noted that 2022 was going to be the year of automation. Did that prediction come to fruition, and if so, what were the top trends in warehouse automation?

    Before I dive into the trends in warehouse automation, I think it would be helpful to summarize the basics around warehouse automation and why so many organizations are trying to navigate this increasingly complex field that has promised to drive the best business results.

    What Is Warehouse Automation?

    Warehouse automation is defined as a system that either replaces a task performed by a laborer or enhances a laborer’s effectiveness, in both cases through the application of technology.

    Although the term automation might suggest robotic arms and conveyor belts, warehouse automation can be something as basic as implementing a warehouse management system (WMS). For example, in a warehouse where associates manually enter and track inventory in a paper ledger or electronic spreadsheet, the implementation of a WMS to track the inventory through barcode scanners is considered adopting a form of warehouse automation.

    There are many different warehouse automation options available with different levels of cost, complexity and benefits. As mentioned in the above example, manually operated warehouses extensively using paper-based systems will view some seemingly basic levels of automation, like handheld barcode readers and wireless communication systems tied into a warehouse management system as a huge step.

    More mature warehouses, having already taken those steps, will be investing in heavy equipment and robotics and evaluating automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), autonomous vehicles (AGVs), vertical lift modules (VLMs), automated mobile robots (AMRs), and high-volume sortation systems (like carousels). These warehouses may also be considering automating the picking process by incorporating lighter technologies like wearables, pick-to-voice and pick-to-light.

    Types of Warehouse Automation

    As the supply chain world continues evolving, it will be paramount to equip your operations with the latest technology developments to meet your labor challenges, customer demands and organizational goals. There are several types of warehouse automation systems now in existence, but each vary greatly in scope, complexity and cost.


    Traditional Warehouse Automation Systems

    Automated sortation systems and conveyors identify items and divert the products or packages to specific destinations. These systems are often used to route or sort items and packages to carrier-specific cages or doors.


    Pick/Put Systems

    Pick-to-light systems employ alphanumeric displays and buttons at storage locations to guide employees in light-aided manual picking, putting and sorting of packages or products. Voice-picking systems augment the normal visual prompts with audible voice prompts and capture activity via voice responses.


    Goods-to-person Systems

    Goods-to-person systems such as AS/RS and vertical lifts store products within the system and automatically transport the goods directly to the operator as needed for picking thus eliminating the travel time.


    Robot Systems

    Warehouse robots like AMRs are used either for transporting goods — often automated lift trucks to heavy load carriers — or to assist in picking, packing, sorting and storing goods. These robots can perform tasks in an automated manner or collaboratively work with existing warehouse material handlers.


    Benefits of Warehouse Automation


    Improve Accuracy

    Automation can help reduce errors in the warehouse by providing users with quality control tools. Tools like directed pick and pack through a handheld scanner ensure that the picker is selecting the right item from the right location (provided the data in the system is accurate of course). Scanning items when performing receiving and putaway also increase inventory accuracy and expedite the inventory counting process.

    If pick and pack is performed exclusively by automation (like an AS/RS), a warehouse can run almost error-free fulfillment, provided the inventory is stored and tagged accurately.


    Increase Productivity

    As order volumes increase, a knee-jerk reaction will be to throw more people into the distribution center (DC) to solve the problem. Unfortunately, adding more labor does not always increase productivity. Lack of space and planning, combined with a lack of employee training will not result in the productivity outcomes needed to handle additional capacity and control costs. Automating tasks and providing warehouse associates with better warehouse management tools are proven to increase productivity, lowering fulfillment costs in the long run.


    Improve Timeliness

    Warehouse automation not only increases the throughput of a warehouse; it also decreases the order cycle time. All the automation systems and tools previously mentioned have been designed and refined over time to optimize fulfillment processes. That means not only increasing productivity (the number of orders filled within a period of time per picker), but also velocity (the time it takes to fulfill these orders).


    Optimize Use of Space

    If you only stack pallets on the warehouse floor, storage racks and high-reach forklift capabilities seem like a technological advancement. For the company that already has storage racks to the ceiling, there are ways of squeezing aisles together using narrow-aisle, person-operated lift systems barely more than a pallet wide. There are more automated systems such as AS/RS cranes that can put/pick within the entire aisle, plus there are pallet shuttles that can be deployed at each level and can even move from aisle to aisle to match demand levels.

    Large amounts of shelves with workers walking around and pulling items off the shelves should be replaced by more compact automated storage and retrieval systems that utilize vertical space to store and retrieve a large amount of SKUs, resulting in gains in space savings and picking time. Closely tracked and controlled items tend to be more secure.

    Today, highly scalable systems have small armies of automated devices moving within three-dimensional storage areas, putting away and retrieving items, then possibly even moving to another aisle when order activity is heavier in those areas. These systems replace human pickers riding on picking devices. Look at high density shuttle systems and systems like AutoStore (taking storage density to a very high level for typically smaller-sized products).


    Enhance Labor

    Labor is harder to find and getting more expensive. Pick more and walk less. Many systems bring items to people to perform the intricate handling, packing and other tasks machines can’t do reliably or affordably. Also, scan data rather than having people perform slow and error-prone data entry. Automated pallet stretch-wrapping devices are a form of automation reducing human work and makes the process more consistent. Automatic box erectors and sealers, plus print and apply systems for barcode labels on boxes and products are far more accurate, faster and consistent.

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    Warehouse Automation Best Practices


    Get Your Warehouse Data Right

    In order to evaluate any warehouse automation project, you need to have accurate and relevant data. Document the size, weight and handling characteristics for all of your products. You will also need to know the size, usable space (not the same as size) and weight capacity for all your locations. Next, document the equipment inventory — with specifics — in your warehouse. You should also prepare a summary of your labor capabilities, their capacities, work rates and skill sets. And finally, you need to have an accurate picture of the transaction volumes your warehouse is able to manage.


    Understand Your Customer Needs

    Many organizations only consider the efficient utilization of space, labor and equipment when it comes to warehouse automation. However, a primary goal of any warehouse operation is also meeting customer expectations. You need to take the time to perform an analysis on your customer needs and how they are changing. With this level of detail, you can then match that back to the warehouse and what kind of warehouse automation project could best support those needs. Don’t forget to include any new services or products your organization is planning and how those will impact your warehouse operations as well.


    Know Where You Are vs. Where You Want to Be

    Preparing your warehouse for automation is all about understanding the problem you are going to solve. Any successful project means understanding exactly what is needed to achieve the objective. Make sure you continually stay on top of your supply chain forecasts and demand patterns during this preparation stage to ensure nothing changes. Most importantly, align with other members of your leadership team on the motivating factors for a warehouse automation project and agree to where your organization wants to be after the project is complete.


    Choose an Integration Approach

    You will first need to determine what level your WMS integrates into the selected automation system. This integration will define how well the two technologies will work in concert. There are two overall approaches, the black box and the WMS directed.

    In the black box integration approach, the WMS sends the orders into the automation system and receives the notification of activity back from the automation system. These means the details around scheduling and workflow are all handled by the automation software. The black box integration passes all control over to the automation system.

    As for the WMS-directed integration approach, the WMS knows where and how all the material is stored and issues individual activity to the automation system at the task level. While this approach requires a lot of effort to integrate, it allows the automation system to be far more integrated into the core functioning of the warehouse.


    Consider the Replenishment Process

    It’s likely your warehouse is looking at automation to increase the pick rate. Therefore, the next thing you need to determine when figuring out how to set up a warehouse management system for automation is getting items restocked in an efficient and proactive way. The fact of the matter is you cannot increase your pace of fulfillment without increasing your pace of replenishment. It is essential to consider when and who will be managing the replenishment and how often the automated areas will require replenishment. Determine if your WMS can replenish based on planned activity and if it can optimize the replenishments based on priority and need. Remember that adding storage capacity to the automation to lessen the number of times you need to replenish any one item can often come at a huge premium cost.


    Have a Plan for Non-Conveyable Items

    An often-overlooked consideration when determining how to set up a warehouse management system for automation is non-conveyable items. Most warehouses have a mix of items and some simply don’t work with automation — too big, too heavy, too breakable, etc. By having a mixture of these types of items in your warehouse means you will need an effective plan on how to split orders into automated items vs. non-conveyable items (or items stored outside the automation) and then marry them back up at the end of the picking process. This plan needs to consider the expected increase in speed driven by the successful implementation of the automation project. The WMS will need to allow zone picking logic which allows you to complete part of the order from the automation (via integration) and part of the order manually via picking off the WMS. This requires a very ‘automation friendly’ WMS and a preconfigured automation zone that is picked from the automation integration.


    Don’t Be Bleeding Edge

    You may wish to be on the leading edge when it comes to warehouse automation, but you also don’t want to be on the bleeding edge. Instead, put greater weight on proven options and clearly define risk tolerance for your business.


    Decide to Build or Partner

    If your company is self-integrating, you will be evaluating individual and collections of hardware and software solutions. Or your company may decide to utilize outside counsel for automation system selection, in which case your team will primarily be evaluating overall satisfaction with the solution and your confidence in their ability to deliver. Either way, the decision-making process is quite similar. When evaluating consultants and integrators, put greater value on those who work with a wider variety of solution providers and tend to package the best solution rather than being dedicated to particular equipment suppliers.

    5 Warehouse Automation Trends

    The next major advancement in the warehouse will be a combination of old, new and refactored technologies that will add huge benefits to efficiency, usability and accuracy. Below are the top trends in warehouse automation we are seeing in the industry.


    1. Warehouse Execution Systems

    One trend in warehouse automation, especially for facilities that are highly automated, is the need for a system to coordinate labor and equipment. A WES manages the workflow and optimizes activity in the warehouse — a WES cannot operate without a WMS; it layers on top of the WMS and adds efficiency and direction to the work within the warehouse.

    Now, it’s very important to realize that a WES is not a warehouse management system (WMS) or a warehouse control system (WCS). Today, a WMS is largely a system of record — it tracks and records where everything is in the warehouse and reports on the activity done to move things around in the warehouse. It tells the material handlers where to get things or where to put things, but that is generally where the technology ends.

    A WCS is used to orchestrate the flow of activity for automation and coordinate material handling sub-systems such as conveyor belts, carousels, scales and sorters. A WES can be involved in managing the flow of work inside the automated parts of the warehouse, but a modern WES is far more focused on the human side of the warehouse and managing your material handlers for optimum efficiency.


    2. Multimodal Warehousing

    Another trend in warehouse automation is a multimodal order picking solution which combines existing warehouse technologies such as voice, visual cues and video in ways that are innovative and removes key steps in the current order picking flow the warehouse worker follows. In essence, streamlining the process to make it faster, more adaptable and more accurate.


    3. Exoskeletons

    Notably the most unusual emerging trend in warehouse automation is a new item in personal protection equipment (PPE), namely personal exoskeletons. These are interconnected back and knee supports with pressure alarms connected to the joints. These exoskeletons are designed to fulfill two roles. The first role is to assist warehouse personnel with lifting boxes and cartons and the second role is to fire an alarm when the device detects a user attempting to lift more than the recommended weight carton. Exoskeletons are marketed as the next level in injury prevention in the warehouse. Something to look out for in our warehouses in North America.


    4. Transforming Labor Management

    In addition to labor shortages and rising costs, it will be especially important for companies to focus on how they manage their people. Automation will play a significant role; according to PwC, up to 30% of all jobs could be automatable by the mid-2030s.

    This shift will present an opportunity for companies to focus on employee development and upskilling. As employees are increasingly asked to work with new technologies, it will be important for companies to provide new types of training and create more opportunities for employees to add value. Future employees will contribute to a more agile and innovative workforce.


    5. Next-Generation Robotics

    The final trend in warehouse automation is next-generation robotics. These technologies include collaborative robots, which can work safely alongside humans; mobile robots, which can move autonomously to various locations within a facility; and cloud-connected robots, which can be monitored and controlled remotely.

    These AI-driven tools can reduce labor costs, improve safety and compliance, and increase accuracy and efficiency in physical environments. As the use of robots in supply chains becomes more widespread, their capabilities are sure to increase as well.


    Looking Ahead at Trends in Warehouse Automation

    Regardless of where your organization is at on the warehouse automation spectrum, the rising cost of labor, the growth of e-commerce and customer demands are making some of these trends in warehouse automation a necessity. A recent Interact Analysis report showed the mobile robot market is expected to grow from $3.6 billion in 2021 to $18 billion in 2025. If you are challenged by efficiency, productivity, labor and space in your warehouse, then you need to begin your automation journey.

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