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When a business automates the movement of their inventory into, within, and out of warehouses to customers with minimal human input, it is termed warehouse automation.
Furthermore, as part of the warehouse automation process, your business can reduce labor-intensive responsibilities and involve repetitive manual data entry, physical work, and analysis.
You can begin the warehouse automation process with a warehouse management system (WMS), inventory control, and data collection. However, you should know that considerable upfront costs are involved if you opt for warehouse automation. However, it also brings numerous benefits to your business, including improving overall operations and efficiency.
What Is Physical Automation in the Warehouse?
Implementing physical automation in your warehouse implies that you will employ technology to reduce staff movement and establish more efficient workflows. For example, robots are one way to explain how physical automation works in the warehouse.
Physical automation in the warehouse offers several benefits, including the increased capacity and efficiency of your warehouse, improved performance, and enhanced scalability and reliability of your services. However, everything comes with its fair share of pros and cons. So does automating your warehouse.
Physical automation comes with significant upfront costs, high maintenance charges and equipment that are meant for highly-specific purposes, and the scarcity of a proficient workforce to manage and maintain the physical automation.
Your business needs advanced planning to successfully implement physical automation in its warehouse and reap the benefits. The system is more suited for warehouses with large-volume storage capacity distribution centers which are designed for accommodating sophisticated and specialized equipment.
How Does Warehouse Automation Work?
Warehouse automation functions by employing software and technology, including robotics and sensors for automating different tasks. These software and technologies work in combination with other systems, including inventory control and management software.
Warehouse automation ensures your business efficiently performs critical operations in your warehouse facilities to meet customer demand. As mentioned above, you can begin with a warehouse management system (WMS) that can automate your manual processes and data collection, supports data and trends analysis, and inventory control.
Most warehouse automation systems can integrate with other software and automate manual tasks across the different supply chains for increased efficiency and productivity.
Types of Warehouse Automation Technology
The primary goal of businesses while implementing warehouse automation is that it reduces repetitive manual tasks and speeds up processes, from receiving inventory to shipping it. Thus, an extensive range of warehouse automation technologies are available, including the following:
It is one of the most popular warehouse automation technology to reduce congestion and increase efficiency. Furthermore, this category of warehouse automation technology includes carousels and vertical lift systems, and conveyors. If your business correctly implements the GTP system, it can quickly speed up warehouse picking by two to three times.
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
Both form part of the GTP fulfillment technology, including automated systems and equipment such as vehicles for carrying materials, mini loaders, and tote shuttle for storing and retrieving products and materials. Warehouses with high-volume storage capacity facing storage constraints usually use these technologies.
Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
The system requires minimal onboard computing power. AGVs are primarily helpful for simple, large warehouses. Furthermore, AGVs are not viable for complex warehouses with space constraints and high human numbers.
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
The system is more flexible than all systems explained above. It helps you create effective routes throughout the warehouse. Furthermore, they use advanced laser guidance to detect obstacles, making navigating them safe.
Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light Systems
These systems use mobile barcode scanning to direct warehouse pickers to pick up and place particular products. Furthermore, these systems can significantly reduce human error and walking and searching time in high-volume warehouses.
Voice Picking and Tasking
The speech-recognition technology is employed for directing warehouse workers to perform different actions. Furthermore, this method eliminates the need for handheld devices, including RF scanners, so that workers can concentrate on their tasks more safely and efficiently.
Automated Sortation Systems
Businesses use automated sorting systems to receive, pick, pack, and ship products during order fulfillment.
When Should You Automate Your Warehouse?
Multiple factors can determine the right time to automate your warehouse. You’ll need to analyze and evaluate your business processes, examine your supply chain, consult in-house experts, and identify gaps in your current systems and technologies.
Here are the most prominent questions you must answer to determine whether it’s the right time for your business to automate your warehouse.
- Are your customers experiencing a delay in receiving their orders due to a limited workforce?
- Do you currently employ labor-intensive warehouse processes and functions?
- Are you experiencing a decline in the order fulfillment capacity?
- Do you have inaccurate inventory counts?
- Are you still using spreadsheets for inventory and warehouse management?
- Do you identify problems in your supply chain with customer satisfaction data?
- Do you have buy-in from your key stakeholders?
- Do you have to increase or decrease your workforce to keep up with the fluctuating demand?
How Can You Automate Your Warehouse?
Automating your warehouse is a complicated process. You must consult your stakeholder, create and schedule a project plan, designate goals across multiple levels and projects, and complete the risk assessment.
To get started with automating your warehouse, you must:
- Include third-party experts who have a complete understanding of supply chain automation.
- Evaluate the current collection process and infrastructure of your data.
- Define the standard operating procedures (SOPs), define key performance indicators (KPIs), and evaluate the accounting method of your inventory to automate the inventory control process.
- Implement a modern, sophisticated warehouse management system that supports mobile devices and can work in combination with your current enterprise software.
- Lastly, determine the type of warehouse automation you want, and aligning them with your business goals is essential to meet customer demand.
Why Should You Automate Your Warehouse?
An inefficient warehouse severely impacts your customer experience. An automated warehouse can enable your business to thrive under fluctuating customer demand. Furthermore, automating your warehouse brings extensive benefits to your business, including improvements in your warehouse operations, more efficiency, and reduced human errors.
Here are some of the most common benefits of automating your warehouse:
- Improved resource utilization
- Increased warehouse productivity
- Improved customer experience and service
- Reduced operational and labor costs
- Reduced storage and handling costs
- Minimized manual labor
- Reduced human errors
- Improved employee satisfaction
- Increased warehouse efficiency
- Reduced stock-outs situations
Enhanced data accuracy and analysis
- Optimized storage spaces in your warehouse
- Higher and better inventory control
- Higher workplace safety
- Reduced shipping errors
- Enhanced material handling and coordination
- Reduced inventory losses
- Improved accuracy of order fulfillment
Challenges of Warehouse Automation
Automation of your warehouse can also present some challenges for your business along with the benefits. For example, warehouse automation requires significant upfront costs for setting it up and getting it running. Furthermore, you will also need expertise in establishing and maintaining the system, which most companies don’t have available in-house at all times and often find difficult to acquire.
Moreover, the equipment can break down due to unexpected damages or events, often at most crucial times. Eventually, equipment breakdown will lead to downtimes, incurring additional repair and maintenance costs.
You will need to establish maintenance schedules to minimize maintenance-related issues. You can consider contracting a third-party service provider or vendor that offers skilled and experienced repairs and maintenance experts. Furthermore, contracting third-party vendors can ensure your new equipment and systems remain operational.
The significantly higher upfront expenses for the system set up and maintenance eventually pay off in the long run due to the improved efficiency, productivity, and increased sales it brings to your business. However, risk management and careful planning are still recommended for companies to be able to anticipate and mitigate challenges across different processes. In the planning stage, you should include regular inventory audits to ensure the accuracy of new data by automating the process against existing data.
Warehouse Automation: Best Practices
Here are six best practices you should consider when automating your warehouse:
Invest in a scalable WMS and other solutions
You should invest in a solution, whether a warehouse or inventory management solution, that aligns with your business’s scalability. You should be able to incorporate additional warehouses, equipment, employees, new drop shippers, etc., in the future. Furthermore, look for a solution to help your business track inventory, manage inventory controls, report labor costs, integrate dashboards, and automate other functionalities.
Automate the data collection process
You should look for a solution that automates data collection, transfer, and storage. When cloud-based solutions are paired with mobile barcode scanners, they form an excellent, cost-effective solution, eliminating human error, monitoring warehouse performance, and checking inventory discrepancies.
Perform regular cycle counts
Regular cycle counts help you monitor current inventory levels against the inventory record data. Warehouse automation enables you to automate cycle counts with RFID sensors or mobile barcode scanners.
Optimize receiving your stock
Your warehouse data collection begins when you receive inventory. Thus, you must collect as much data as possible in the beginning phase. Establish rules on your WMS for the incoming products and determine how to handle the product, where you shall store it, etc.
Evaluate your warehouse design
You should evaluate your warehouse design optimized to adapt to the automation technology. You should work with vendors and other professionals that understand your requirements.
Which Warehouse Process Can You Automate?
The ideal warehouse automation system allows your business to automate tasks across every aspect of inventory control and order fulfillment.
- Receiving inventory
- Products moved from receiving to storage, known as putaway.
- Packaging and
Warehouse Automation: Trends and Statistics
Quick order fulfillment is not just an option for e-commerce businesses, with 77% of people willing to pay for faster delivery and 63% considering delivery speed a vital factor in a satisfactory customer experience. Thus automated operations and systems are witnessing an increase in investments that can handle both small and large individual orders are defining the warehouses of the changing e-commerce era.
Furthermore, an automated warehouse effectively solves almost 27% of fulfillment issues arising due to staff turnover. When you automate your warehouse operations, you can easily manage increasing orders in peak seasons, which non-automated warehouses can barely match when faced with a spike in demand.
The technology regarding robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, and more are rapidly developing and have a significant growth factor for automation.
Here’s a list of technological advancements driving the automation of warehouses:
- Robotics is perfect for areas facing a shortage of manual labor
- A collaboration between humans and robots (Cobotics) could be 85% more productive than working alone, according to BMW.
- Supply chain as a service or warehouse service-based markets
- Blockchain technology brings data validation, transparency, and authentication to warehouses.
- Warehouse drones come equipped with barcode scanners and visual sensors to track inventory levels
- Fast shipping for quick order fulfillment
- Mobile shelving with GTP systems, allowing warehouse workers to pick items with less movement and walking time
- Automated vehicles
- ERP integrations
- Connected logistics, including big data, internet of things (IoT), and predictive analysis
- Wireless management of fleet
Automations in different operations are gaining a foothold in the ever-changing scenario of how businesses are conducted. In combination with inventory management systems and inventory tracking and controls, warehouse automation carries excellent potential for delivering enhanced user experiences. Furthermore, companies shouldn’t take automating their warehouses lightly if they wish to establish a seamless order fulfillment process and build customer loyalty by delivering high customer satisfaction.
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- Basic warehouse automation
- Warehouse system automation
- Mechanized warehouse automation
- Advanced warehouse automation
- Consult your stakeholder and third-party experts
- Collect valuable data
- Evaluate, analyze, and monitor inventory controls
- Invest in a warehouse management system (WMS)
- Determine the types of warehouse automation your business needs
- Barcode scanning
- Implementing automation with GTP systems
- AS/RS system-enabled inventory automation
- Back-office automation
Businesses are switching to automating their warehouses for increased efficiency, optimized storage cost, reduced manual errors, cost-effectiveness, and more. There are two primary types of warehouse automation: physical and process.
- Higher investment in the initial phases
- High maintenance
- Does not fully support highly-variable operations
- Technical skills and retraining required