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Warehouse Automation: Small Investments, Big Results

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Automation is a surefire way to improve efficiency. It moves routine, repetitive tasks away from workers, freeing them up for more important things. But if you think that warehouse automation is just for huge operations with unlimited budgets, it’s time to reconsider your assumptions.

Profitable warehouse automation can be done in small, incremental steps. It’s an approach that works whether your budget is big or small. More importantly, your staff will adapt more easily and ROI will be realized sooner with gradual changes, not sudden ones.

Here’s how it’s done.

What is Warehouse Automation? Rethinking Our Idea

When you describe one of today’s fully-automated warehouses, it seems (to some people) like something out of a sci-fi movie. But despite how far technology has come, most warehouse automation is not anything like our mental picture of an army of robots making human workers obsolete.

Automation is simply the process of reassigning routine tasks to machines that can do them quickly, safely, and accurately. Viewed this way, it’s easier to see how they can be done in smaller, more practical steps.

That being said, automation is still subject to some common misconceptions.

  • Misconception #1: Automation takes jobs away from humans.
    Fact: While there may be a shifting of duties, automation done properly can maintain or even increase the workforce.
  • Misconception #2: Automated machines are too complicated for our operations.
    Fact: Some surprisingly low-tech automation can improve productivity.
  • Misconception #3: Automation is too expensive and only for the “big guys.”
    Fact: Low-tech, low-cost options may be all your warehouse needs.
  • Misconception #4: It will take too long to see the ROI of automating.
    Fact: Huge capital investments in automation can take years to pay off. Making small, incremental changes can show results in months. 
  • Misconception #5: If we automate part of our warehouse, we need to automate it all.
    Fact: Automation is not “all or nothing.” It can be done in small ways to address only those areas that need improvement. 

The Human Factor

Despite what sci-fi movies might lead you to believe, the purpose of automation isn’t to replace humans with an army of robots or non-stop assembly lines. The goal is increased productivity through reassigning repetitive tasks (that don’t require much thought) to a machine. In some cases, a worker may still do the job, but the machine will make it easier. In the broader sense, the shift allows the human workers to do what humans do best—assignments that require organization, decision making, and critical thinking. In other words, the humans do the things that tend to add more value.

What Does Automation Look Like in the Real World?

One example of automation that everyone can relate to is the dishwasher. People were thrilled to learn they could load an automatic dishwasher instead of standing at the sink, elbow-deep in suds. Once they hit the start button, there was more time to do other things. A person living alone may not need a dishwasher, but the bigger the family, the more useful the machine becomes.

In the same way, as a business grows, so does the benefit of automation. On the warehouse floor, machines should be considered for tasks if they can be faster, more accurate, or safer than workers. Here are some examples:

  • A worker moves boxes from receiving to storage using a hand truck. As business ramps up, he may need to make twice as many trips in a day. You could install a conveyor to move the boxes instead. Not only can you keep up with the increased volume, you can put that employee on another task—perhaps quality control of the goods as they arrive.
  • It’s standard practice to weigh and measure boxes to determine shipping rates. Placing every carton on a scale and using a tape measure is time-consuming and subject to errors. Dimension and weight-measuring systems (also called DIM weight scanners)  can be integrated into the process to calculate these measurements automatically and with much better accuracy. 
  • Greater accuracy can also be achieved by using barcoding software. A labeling system creates a unique “address” for every SKU. Label readers can eliminate the human error of misreading a label or transposing numbers.
  • Lifting a 20-pound box may not be a problem for a worker. But lifting hundreds of them onto pallets all day can be dangerous, causing back strain or even an accident. Automating with lift trucks could eliminate injuries while also making the job go faster. 
  • The same goes for repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. Say a worker counts out buttons by hand. Not only will a machine that can count them be more accurate, but it will also provide ergonomic relief to the worker.

Resistance to adopting automation in a warehouse sometimes comes from the fear of making someone’s job obsolete. By automating a task, you don’t need a person to do it anymore, right? But if a company is automating with the right mindset, not only will they keep their workforce, but they may also increase it. 

Some amount of retraining will be necessary as jobs shift from manual labor to machine operating and technology. Most importantly, as automation makes increases efficiency and production, the business can expand and grow. Staff will ultimately increase rather than decrease.

Investing in Warehouse Automation

It’s true that you can spend a huge amount of money on automation. Large warehouse facilities like Amazon spend millions on high-tech WMS, driverless material handling equipment, and robotic picking systems. But as we’ve illustrated in our examples above, there are ways to automate on a smaller scale that can fit any warehouse. This means that there is warehouse automation for small businesses, too.

In fact, it should be obvious by now that trying to create a fully automated warehouse is overkill for most companies. Instead, it pays to use a problem-solving approach, making strategic investments in automated equipment that solves a specific problem. These smaller investments can often show a positive ROI in months rather than years. As the company scales up, so can the automation.

To decide how to automate and what automated equipment is best, warehouse managers must first examine the problem areas of their operation. What is slowing operations by taking longer than it should? Where are mistakes likely? Where and how are employees getting hurt? These are the places where an automated solution will almost always improve the situations. (Collecting the right data about your warehouse will be key, then, to being strategic about your automation).

Types of Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation typically falls into two categories: material handling and data collection.

Automated vehicles (AGVs), conveyors, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), and pallet lifters are all examples of material handling equipment. These may require operators or may be fully autonomous. They can handle things that are too large or heavy to be lifted or moved by humans. These machines can do it faster and more safely, too. Heavy lifting, toxic chemicals, cutting tools, or even repetitive motions can cause injuries from mild to deadly. A warehouse manager should consider automated material handling equipment wherever dangerous jobs are done manually or products need to travel long distances within the warehouse.

Automated data collection encompasses any type of computer software that takes the place of old-fashioned written documentation. This includes computer-generated orders, pick lists, and other documents. Barcode readers and labeling systems also fall in this category. Barcode systems are reasonably priced and can be customized to work with a warehouse’s specific operations. 

The advantages of data collection automation include speed and accuracy in receiving, picking, and shipping areas. Inventory control products can give real-time data about the exact quantity and location of any given SKU. Human errors are drastically reduced when a worker can scan an item with a barcode reader, instead of copying down information by hand. And WMS software can analyze KPIs like SKU velocity to help determine the most efficient ways to organize your warehouse.  

Deciding What to Automate

Warehouse managers need to examine whether a task should be automated, not only if it can. Automation has the most value when it solves a problem such as chronic mistakes, consistent delays, or injuries. 

If those problems are minor, or only occasional, it may be hard to justify the expense of an automated solution. For example, let’s say you have an employee perform a value-added service to products, such as hand-lettering. They keep up with the volume just fine except for a month-long period before the holidays. There might be a piece of equipment you could buy to do the task. It would be faster, but you would forfeit the personal touch of having it done by hand. In a case like this, it probably makes more sense to add a temporary worker during that busy time. 

The bottom line is that any size warehouse can take advantage of the increased efficiency offered by automation. A thorough analysis of where the “pain points” are in the operation should help outline where automation can do the most good. Implement things gradually. As business scales up, so can your automation.

Topics: warehouse management, Warehouse Setup, inventory management

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