Who has time for manual tasks anymore? Certainly not the warehousing industry. As technology continues to improve the speed and efficiency of supply chains, more and more tasks are becoming automated. Every year, the number of human hands working on warehouse operations decreases as warehouse automation takes hold of the industry.
What is Warehouse Automation?
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.
Many of the world’s biggest retailers such as Amazon, Nike, Walmart and Coca Cola have huge warehouse automation operations. Nike, for example, has a European warehouse called “Distribuzione” that features a 280 meter automated conveyor that handles 43 million items each year. Online retailer Zappos also has one of the most efficient automated warehouses in the world. The company deploys robots to locate and retrieve goods from all over the warehouse and bring them to their human workers for packing.
Benefits of Warehouse Automation
We already touched on one of the main benefits of warehouse automation: speed. No matter how well a person memorizes 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, maximizing productivity during the product retrieval process.
Warehouse automation doesn’t just speed up product retrieval, however; it also speeds up order fulfillment. One of the biggest success stories of speeding up order fulfillment is Diapers.com. The online retailer utilizes robots and conveyors that greatly increase the speed of order fulfillment. Because of this, they’re able to offer free overnight shipping; a major competitive advantage in the industry.
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 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 labor 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.
Last but not least, we come to maximizing 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. They create an ongoing game of Tetris that becomes more difficult the more you grow.
Luckily for warehouses, automation helps maximize 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. Instead, automated warehouses feature special movable shelves that robots can move around, like goods on a pallet. However, they take up less space than a pallet, and the robots need less room to maneuver when moving them. All of this means that you can install your product shelves with smaller aisles, which creates more room for storage. This is depicted in the 3D rendering below:
In addition, automated warehouses utilize 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.
The Warehouse Automation Technology You Should Invest In
Not sure what types of warehouse automation technology are the best? Based off of what the largest retailers in the world deploy, here are three pieces of technology you should add to your warehousing operations:
You almost certainly saw this coming. For decades, various media portrayed robots performing the manual tasks we don’t want to do. That vision is finally coming to fruition in today’s modern warehouse.
Retailers and distributors deploy automated robotics solutions for the storage and retrieval of goods within the warehouse. Amazon’s Kiva robots are currently the gold standard in warehousing robotics. They increase the speed and efficiency of picking, as they not only move much faster than people can, but can also move more goods at once while instantly identifying the optimum route for picking up and delivering those goods.
As we mentioned above, robots are one of the biggest catalysts in maximizing warehouse space by decreasing aisle size and increasing vertical storage. And unlike their human counterparts, they’re not as prone to mistakes.
The new wave of innovation for material handling has come in the form of automated conveyors. Warehouses that deal with a high volume of goods have to use automated conveyors to keep up. An inefficient conveyor system creates bottlenecks that greatly slow down the organization and storage of incoming product.
Similarly to the use of robots, conveyors all but eliminate processing errors. This is especially helpful during the storage process, as you want to make sure that all of your goods are sorted properly and end up where they need to be. Automated sorting also helps increase order accuracy by ensuring that every item ends up where it needs to be.
Cloud-Deployed Warehouse Management System
How do warehouse managers facilitate and track all of the data that flows through an automated warehouse system? With a cloud-deployed warehouse management system (WMS). A WMS deployed on the cloud is a critical automation tool that helps make sure all of your warehousing operations run smoothly.
A WMS tracks data in real-time, which helps managers spot inefficiencies as they happen. They also allow you to continually monitor things like inventory levels. The advantage of the cloud (as opposed to an on-premise solution) means that it’s easier to connect the WMS to your various robots, conveyors and other machines that process all of that data. The system then takes that data and gives managers a high-level view of what’s going on in the warehouse, which helps identify areas for improvement.