Warehouse automation is a very broad term and means different things to different organisations.
Warehouse automation involves the use of technology to perform as many warehousing tasks as possible. Rather than assigning error-prone humans to retrieve, sort and ship goods, warehouses are deploying technology to take over. Although humans are still needed to oversee and help with tasks such as packing, the slowest and most laborious tasks are delegated to machines that work faster, work longer and create fewer errors.
As businesses grow their warehouses and inventory expands but often the systems in place do not keep up. Inefficiencies from these antiquated systems often go undetected and therefore contain several hidden costs. Warehouse operations need to keep pace with systems and technology that can reduce waste and maximise efficiency. A Warehouse Management System (WMS) and handheld computers with wireless communications are the tools of a modern warehouse.
There are some companies with fully automated warehouses that run continuously without the need for human intervention. However, for the vast majority it is much more varied. Some customers have introduced robots and autonomous vehicles for picking while others use conveyors and “goods to person” picking to maximise efficiency. In some cases, simply migrating from a paper based operation to having a WMS in place is a big step towards automating the warehouse. It’s all relative, as there’s no “one size fits all” approach.
Overall, the main benefits of automation in the warehouse are consistent to all types of implementation – lower labour costs, increase in speed, and decrease in operational costs as well as maximising your warehouse space.
Key Benefits of Warehouse Automation
* Increasing Speed
We already touched on one of the main benefits of warehouse automation: speed. No matter how well a person memorises a warehouse, they still can’t beat an automated system that instantaneously identifies the locations of all of the items in a given order. These systems can also find the optimum route to collect them, maximising productivity during the product retrieval process.
Warehouse automation doesn’t just speed up product retrieval, however; it also speeds up order fulfilment. In addition to this, you can also speed up your inventory management processes with warehouse automation. Rather than dispatching people to manually record items, you can use technology that automatically counts items for you. Maintaining regular inventory control is one of the most time-consuming manual tasks, but an easy one when it’s automated.
* Decreasing Cost
Decreasing costs is another huge benefit of warehouse automation. Although the upfront cost of adopting and implementing automation systems is anything but cheap, it pays for itself in the long run. Using automation technology becomes much cheaper than paying for manual labour in the long run.
This is especially true for retailers that face massive amounts of overtime during peak times such as the holidays. When it gets close to the biggest order days of the year, warehouse workers oftentimes might spend several additional hours each processing orders manually, which results in lots of overtime pay. With warehouse automation, however, you can keep your machines running for as long as you want without incurring an extra cost. After all, nobody ever had to pay machines overtime to keep running.
* Maximising Space
Last but not least, we come to maximising space. This is a benefit that people don’t always equate with warehouse automation. In reality, however, it’s one of the biggest. Space is a finite resource, especially in warehousing and distribution facilities that are packed with all kinds of goods.
From our experience working in a lot of non-automated warehouses, there tends to be a lot of space doing nothing, whereas introducing automated conveyor systems and vertical picking systems could mean making the best use of all available space.
Luckily for warehouses, automation helps maximise the space that they have. How does it do so? For one thing, most warehouse automation systems feature robots or other machines that handle product retrieval and storage. This means that you don’t need to send people off into the aisles which, in turn, eliminates the need for wide aisles that can accommodate bulky pallets and pallet jacks with a wide turning radius.
In addition, automated warehouses utilise more vertical storage space. Retrieval robots and other machines can retrieve goods from high up safer and faster than humans can. All told, warehouse automation uses up about 40% less floor space than a traditional warehouse.
When is the ideal time to move to warehouse automation?
Many areas of the warehouse benefit from the introduction of automation but given that picking is one of the most expensive operations, it is the obvious one to start with and the main reason why goods to person picking is increasingly common. There are advantages for other operations too. For instance, inbound receipting of stock and automated goods receipting avoids having operatives manually checking incoming items. Inventory checking is another good example and stock records can be updated automatically, reducing the need for perpetual inventory (PI) checks. Although PI is better than having to do a periodic stocktake, it still requires an operative to make manual checks.
A common investment trigger point is when companies are expanding and looking to move to a larger warehouse or perhaps they are introducing more e-commerce. Rather than moving, they should consider automation, which will allow them to better utilise their existing space instead of incurring the extra expense of opening a larger or additional warehouse. For example, automated environments can have narrower aisles or multi-layer conveyor systems running in the same space, allowing utilisation levels to be maximised vs a traditional operation. Given that property prices are currently very high, companies are seeing a better payback from automating and staying put, rather than moving or opening an additional DC.
When it comes to automation every situation is unique, there’s never going to be a ‘one size for all’ model. As part of the automation review process, it’s essential to understand:-
- How a new system will support the company’s current logistics processes
- Whether current software systems will work seamlessly with an automated system.
- Ensure that any new automated technology will be able to communicate with a legacy ERP or WMS
Taking a warehouse from a storage place to a business centre means making it efficient. The goal is to know what is in the warehouse at any time from the perspective of raw materials to finished goods. With this information, production can keep pace with demand and orders can be filled with confidence. To make this happen companies rely on a Warehouse Management System (WMS).
No two companies are identical. Identifying how to optimise processes when automation is introduced is a key part when identifying what warehouse automation solution would work best for you. Make sure you find a company who understands your business and your requirements.
Speak to one of our team to understand how Clarus’ WMS system can cost effectively support best practice warehouse management processes, better customer service and highly efficient working for a range of warehouse operations with pay per month options and no IT infrastructure needed.
Our platform can scale from a one user, small depot system to a 100’s of user distribution centre operation. The ClarusWMS platform will cost effectively scale with your business based on demand.
ClarusWMS is a UK based supplier of warehouse management solutions with a wealth of industry experience in third party logistics, wholesale/retail distribution, online fulfillment, and manufacturing warehousing.