10 Ways to Maximize the Benefits of Warehouse Automation

  • July 10, 2023
Engineer working with robotic arm picking up package at industrial manufacturing

Over the past 10 years, consumers have embraced the convenience of online shopping. Ecommerce sales in the U.S. have grown from 5% to nearly 15% of total retail sales, which has led to a mass migration of labor from retail stores to warehouse floors. These developments continue to hasten the adoption of warehouse automation technologies.

The shift to warehouse automation continues unabated

As the number of warehousing jobs across the U.S. has nearly tripled during this timeframe, it’s become increasingly difficult and costly to attract, hire, train and keep qualified people for these positions.

And in an attempt to offset the risk and increasing dependence on warehouse labor, industry investment in warehouse automation has more than doubled over the past several years.

  • We’ve seen Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) mature from bleeding-edge technologies to tried-and-true solutions.
  • Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) are now commonplace and will continue to grow at a pace dictated by supplier manufacturing capacity.
  • We are amid a battle of the bots. The variety of autonomous mobile robots and robotic picking and palletizing systems available in the market brings a level of flexibility and scalability unmatched by more traditional fixed-asset technologies.
  • We can now pay as we go through “as a service” pricing models for robots and software.
  • Also, we’re seeing the collapse of traditional “pure play” solution-agnostic material handling integrators into more vertically integrated providers of OEM equipment, multiple software applications, and a broad array of professional services beyond material handling integration.

Warehouse automation certainly offers a terrific opportunity to reduce labor and costs, expand capacity and improve service. However, choosing the right technologies — for the right reasons — can be challenging. So here are 10 ways to maximize the benefit of warehouse automation.

  • Identify the burning platform. Prioritize the areas in your warehouse with the largest opportunity for improvement. Typically, this will be in your order selection process where 50% or more of labor is often allocated.
  • Don’t pave the cow path. Focus on improving current processes before committing to new technologies. Otherwise, you’ll ultimately sub-optimize your investment.
  • Avoid islands of automation. Seek a holistic solution instead of a single technology or point solution. Warehouse automation needs to work seamlessly with upstream and downstream processes and technologies.
  • Select the technology before you select the supplier. Determine the technologies that best fit your specific business requirements and know that not all technologies within a category have the same capability. Each will come with its own unique capabilities, constraints and cost structures.
  • Prioritize tried-and-true solutions over bleeding-edge technologies. Practical, proven automation solutions generally equate to less risk, higher reliability and fewer headaches. This doesn’t necessarily mean avoiding less mature or emerging technologies, but it does lead to number six below.
  • When possible, try before you buy. Many technologies such as Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) and other robotics systems lend themselves to evaluating feasibility and capability before making a full commitment.
    • Start with a proof of concept (to confirm or reject its viability for your business).
    • Examine a prototype — via a mathematical emulation, a digital simulation or a physical mock-up in a test environment — and/or pilot testing in a live operational environment.
  • Land before you expand. When possible, rationalize the size of your initial commitment in an automated solution. Learn from the results and adjust accordingly before making a broader financial commitment.
  • Don’t forget about the software. Software fuels the warehouse automation engine. Invest in complementary software solutions that enable seamless integration, management, orchestration and optimization of your warehouse equipment, labor and order fulfillment requirements.
  • Play the field and date before you marry an integrator. Material handling integrators have various levels of experience and different capabilities and limitations with specific warehouse automation solutions. Have them compete for your business and confirm their ability to implement the solutions that best fit your requirements before making a contractual commitment.
  • Remember, marriage is a two-way commitment. Ultimately, you own the outcome of your journey, your investment and your business-partner relationships. Plan to commit significant time and internal resources to maximize your benefit.

— By Tom Tiede

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