Adding automation to warehouses enables companies to do more with less, which is why nearly half of supply chain professionals we spoke to plan to add at least one form of automated technology in the next 5 years. Automating the warehouse offers numerous benefits, the first of which is an increase in operational efficiency because you are maximizing your workforce – which is crucial in such a tight labor force. Another is boosted throughput.
But which automated solution is best? Rather than being a one-size-fits-all process, automation investments vary depending on your warehouse’s challenges and needs. Perhaps customer orders are delayed because of staffing challenges, processes are too time-consuming and labor-intensive, or fulfillment capacity isn’t where it needs to be.
With new technology like autonomous mobile robotics (AMRs), emerging companies often find themselves wondering which would be better. Should they invest in this new technology, or would more traditional “bolted-to-the-floor” type solutions such as conveyors, crossbelt sorters and storage systems be a better choice?
When considering adding automation to your warehouse, avoid looking at the upcoming investment as an either/or scenario where newer automation solutions are superior or inferior to traditional ones. The best solutions are often comprised of a mix.
Let’s explore what to consider in a warehouse automation investment.
Weighing your options
Traditional, high-performance automation like automated storage and retrieval (AS/RS) systems, miniloads and high-speed shuttle systems have been around for decades – and just keep getting better and more efficient. These solutions are incredibly efficient with throughput, speed and space utilization.
Typically, an 80% reduction in the required labor and a 70% smaller footprint are certainly feasible. The downside is that they can take nine to 18 months for design, engineering, installation and implementation. Also, changing the system afterwards can be complex, time-consuming and disruptive to operations.
On the other end of the spectrum, some of the newer automation like AMRs are relatively inexpensive and easy and quick to add to the warehouse without making major infrastructure changes
However, they do not provide the significant step-change in performance and storage density that high-end traditional systems offer. Depending on the solution, a 20% to 40% efficiency increase is realistic. And while some AMR solutions offer no real space savings, others can reduce the footprint by 40%.
Choosing one solution or a mix of traditional and new
But when you combine traditional solutions like high-performance shuttle systems and high-speed conveyors with newer ones – think of a sortation AMR or goods-to-person solution, you’re combining the best of both worlds and can provide greater return on investment (ROI).
For example, a goods-to-person AMR solution will increase efficiency by bringing the “source products” to the picker. The picker will then take the goods required for a customer order and place these in a shipping carton.
Of course, erecting, closing and handling these cartons can be done manually but when throughput increases, machines for automatic carton creation and closing may provide a good ROI. These could then be combined with conveyors to take them to and from the workstations. All combined, these systems will improve your efficiency even more.
Or imagine a retailer who already has an advanced, high-speed shuttle goods-to-person system. This was originally designed for store replenishment. With eCommerce demand increasing, the retailer is looking for a way to make the system more suitable for dealing with the high number of smaller orders.
One way to do this is to add more aisles and conveyors to the shuttle system. In this example, the alternative could be to pick those eCommerce orders in small batches. This could be done by adding an AMR-based transport and sortation system. This eliminates the need to change the shuttle system, keeps the layout flexible and enables the retailer to deal with increased eCommerce orders.
Selecting an experienced, reputable provider
When it comes to efficiency automation provides, tradeoffs exist. Newer, easier-to-implement and less costly solutions can save labor costs and improve accuracy and pick rates. Alternatively, higher-end fixed automation often costs more and takes longer to implement than some newer automation but also comes with a higher ROI. Often, however, the best solution is to combine the two.
Selecting a reputable, highly experienced automation provider that offers a wide variety of solutions is key as it will be able to help you choose and integrate solutions customized to you. It’s usually best to avoid a company offering only one solution as that is the one it will push, regardless of whether it’s the best fit for your needs.
Your provider of choice should analyze your data and operational processes and understand your plans for future growth before determining the best automated solutions to fit your warehouse’s needs.
No two warehouses are alike and automation – whether new, traditional or a combination of the two – can transform your facility into what you want.
Learn more about warehouse automation here.