Warehouse automation is the practice of automating inventory movement into, within and out of a warehouse environment with minimal human involvement. By automating a warehouse’s processes, a business can look to eliminate repetitive physical work and labor-intensive duties, as well as analysis and manual data entry.
Not all warehouse automation refers to robotic automation, as in many cases it refers to the replacement of manual tasks with software. Nor does it always suggest the replacement of human labor, with many warehouse automations simply changing the nature of some processes to incorporate technology to aid efficiency.
Warehouse automation can have significant upfront costs, but there are many benefits, too, including the improvement of overall operations and the minimization of human errors.
With the online retail sales of tangible goods sector expected to reach almost $500 billion by 2024 and the pandemic only further fueling the need for remote shopping, the demand for efficient warehouse services has never been higher.
What is digital automation?
Digital automation uses software and data to reduce manual processes – an example of digital warehouse automation would be automatic identification and data capture (AIDC), such as mobile barcoding.
The benefits of digitally automating your warehouse can include greater security, enhanced data management efficiency and reduced legal and operational risks. The warehouse racking system suppliers at SJF add that from the perspective of the warehouse itself, “Investing in the right materials, machinery and automation can eliminate human errors and reduce manual processes, enhancing worker experience, reducing operational costs associated with error and improving customer service.”
However, implementing such technology requires a significant financial investment for hardware and software, as well as the time and costs associated with implementing the new systems and training employees.
What is physical automation in the warehouse?
Physical automation refers to the implementation of technology to minimize physical movement and create more efficient workflows, such as replacing repetitive, labor-intensive tasks with robots.
The advantages of incorporating physical automation can include greater reliability, improved performance and increased warehouse efficiency and capacity, leading to the scalability of services.
The disadvantages again are the significant upfront costs and maintenance costs, and the potential difficulty in finding a skilled workforce to maintain and manage the new system.
Warehouse automation categories
Automating a warehouse can range from quite simple to technologically complex. The categories of warehouse automation include:
Basic warehouse automation uses simple technology to assist workers with tasks to replace more manual labor, such as conveyor belt or carousel to aid moving inventory.
Warehouse system automation uses machine learning, robotics, software and data analytics to automate procedures. For example, the system may review the day’s orders in advance and organise the implementation of simultaneously collecting items instead of fulfilling each order one-by-one.
Mechanized warehouse automation uses robotic systems and equipment to assist in human tasks. For example, autonomous mobile shelf loaders can lift product racks and deliver them to workers to retrieve the required items with ease.
Advanced warehouse automation combines automation systems and warehouse robotics to significantly replace human workflows. For example, an advanced AI capable robotic forklift fleet that uses sensors and cameras to navigate the warehouse and communicate between each other and back to an online tracking portal.
When to automate
If you are deciding whether to automate your warehouse facility, it’s important to evaluate your procedures and processes, identify gaps in current technology and examine your supply chain.
Some helpful questions to ask are:
- Is a limited workforce delaying your customer orders?
- Are your current warehouse procedures and processes labor-intensive?
- Are your inventory counts accurate?
- Is customer satisfaction analysis suggesting a consistent problem in the supply chain?
- Do you currently increase/decrease workforce numbers to keep up with fluctuating demands?
How to automate
Warehouse automation requires a clear and workable plan, taking into account all likely benefits and challenges. A successful shift towards automation requires a complete risk assessment and a thorough project schedule.
It is important to choose automation technologies that best support your business goals whilst carefully considering the effect upon your workforce. Make preparations to retrain your workforce where possible to facilitate employment continuity and employer satisfaction.
Collect critical data regarding your existing supply chain and warehouse operations, evaluating your current infrastructure and data collection processes, as well as your inventory controls and how automation will impact it.
Keeping your workforce safe
Warehouse safety needs to remain a priority regardless of levels of automation. The effects of Covid-19 have driven this issue home even more, as warehouse workers are already exposed to safety challenges without a pandemic to contend with. So, no matter what your automation plans, continue to implement important occupational health and safety practices that are directly relevant to the working environment.
These include conducting regular health and safety training, staying ahead of the maintenance and repair of safe and reliable warehouse equipment, maintaining ongoing hazard-prevention vigilance and encouraging effective communication between all workers and management staff.
Emma Williams is a digital marketing expert and experienced business blogger. She is passionate about sharing her knowledge on best business practice, legal advice, and how SMEs can create positive, sustainable change.
Photo by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash