We are well into the 21st century, and one thing we can say for certain is that automation is in. Whether we’re talking about self-driving cars, artificial intelligence used for customer service support, or Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) transporting items within a warehouse, it’s all around us. As more and more technology becomes available, it’s important to take a step back to understand the factors driving automation in the warehouse space. Let’s start with the basics.
What is Warehouse Automation?
Simply put, warehouse automation is when certain tasks within the warehouse space are automated, like the movement of inventory with minimal human assistance. Warehouse automation can help eliminate labor-intensive duties like repetitive physical work, manual data entry, and even data analysis.
As an example, a warehouse employee can use an AMR to transport heavy packages. The employee will load the packages onto the AMR, and then that inventory will be moved from one end of the warehouse, to its destination. This is a clear example of automation, but it doesn’t always have to be associated with physical labor, it can be as simple as using software.
Automating a warehouse can help address insufficient spacing issues, inventory tracking and management, and labor shortages. Online retail sales have been increasingly on the rise, and revenue from e-commerce in the United States is expected to exceed $500 billion dollars by 2025, which will increase the demand for warehouse services even more. Automation is rapidly becoming mandatory. So, what’s driving this?
#1 Warehouse Management
With warehouse management, one needs to manage stock storage as well as picking and packing initiatives. Doing this requires the ability to analyze trend data to place the best-selling items in packing areas to expedite shipping and dictate which items to use to fill orders, such as products with an approaching expiration date. Tracking this manually, especially in a large warehouse, can be nearly impossible. This is where automation such as a Warehouse Management System (WMS) can help. A WMS is a software solution that allows warehouses to manage their entire supply chain distribution from fulfillment to point of purchase or consumption.
#2 Inventory Monitoring
Warehouse management and tracking inventory almost go hand in hand. Once again, keeping accurate records of current inventory, especially in a larger facility, can be quite challenging. If an operation is still relying on manual data entry into a spreadsheet, chances are something is going to fall through the cracks, and often. With an Inventory Management System (IMS), warehouses are able to track inventory across multiple locations and provide an overview of all available inventory which allows business owners to focus on maintaining inventory levels to fulfill projected orders. It’s a great way to manage expectations, deliver on SLAs, and gain some peace of mind.
#3 Eliminate Human Error / Manual Labor
Data collection can greatly benefit from automation, mainly because it eliminates the risk of human error. Just one mistake with a missed decimal point, and everything can go off the rails. By automating data collection through a cloud-based solution paired with a mobile barcode scanner, one can reduce the chance for costly errors easily and without too much up front cost. Automation can also help minimize the amount of manual labor an individual must do, by reducing the amount of walking, lifting, and reaching. A great solution for that is a goods-to-person picking system; it won’t replace your workforce, but it will greatly assist them in doing better work, faster.
# 4 Labor Shortage
We’ve been hearing a lot about warehouse labor shortages, and the issue shows no signs of slowing down. This means businesses need to pivot, and quickly, to ensure they stay on top of growing demand. Mechanized warehouse automation can help, like robotic equipment systems designed to assist humans with labor-intensive tasks. For example, an autonomous mobile shelf loader that lifts and transports entire racks of products to human pickers. There are also advanced warehouse automations, like a robotic forklift fleet that uses a combination of advanced artificial intelligence, cameras, and sensors to get around a warehouse while communicating each forklift’s location to an online tracking portal.
#5 Space Constraints
We’ve all been there, growing pains. Discovering that one’s business is outgrowing one’s space can be a tricky situation, and building an entirely new distribution center is a massive endeavor. By utilizing advanced storage capabilities in hand with automated material handling technology, one may be able to avoid a move entirely. An Automated Storage and Retrieval System (AS/RS) is one way many distribution centers address spacing issues. This technology includes automated systems and equipment like material-carrying vehicles, tote shuttles, and mini-loaders to store and retrieve materials or products. This can grant warehouses the flexibility to stack items higher, creating more space, as the automated machinery will be able to access it. Automated equipment can provide denser storage using a much smaller footprint, an ideal solution for high-volume warehouses looking to expand their operation.
As you can see, there are a variety of reasons driving automation in the warehouse, and a variety of automation options available. Though automation is becoming more and more widely adopted, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right option for every warehouse. That’s where Cornerstone can help. If you need help addressing inventory issues, flow strategies, forecasting, facility planning and design, or deciding whether automation is right for you, call us. We’re your supply chain partner, here to cheer you through the good times and help you through the tough ones.