2024 Warehouse Automation – Agile, Lean & Flexible
Warehouse automation — agile, lean, and flexible scalability — is vital in your warehouse and DC. So, who had a supply chain plan for pandemics in their 2020 playbook? I know I wasn’t smart enough for that, but I’m sure someone was. The pandemic and subsequent “whack a mole” supply chain issues and spiking steel and oil prices have demonstrated the need to be able to re-emphasize agility in our supply chains.
In order to solve today’s and tomorrow’s issues of scalability being vital in your warehouse and DC, what are the key areas to focus on to be able to react and thrive in these tumultuous times? There are many areas, but starting at the top is reviewing your JIT (Just in Time) and inventory practices, reducing labor requirements, utilizing fulfillment technology that provides rapid deployment, and modifying the agility and flexibility of your warehouse system to exceed today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.
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JIT and Inventory Practices Scalability in Your Warehouse and DC
The intricate supply chain system that transports raw resources and finished goods throughout the world needs predictability and accuracy. Most organizations have honed their on-hand inventory and JIT practices to an art form. The attention given to creating a high-performance supply chain has been a requirement for organizations to compete in the global marketplace. As we have all learned, there is a direct cost to performance vs. agility. When you build a high-performance supply chain, you reduce your flexibility and agility. In “normal” times, performance has proven to be the benchmark organizations strive for.
When we consider some of the issues we face today: extreme weather, material scarcity, shipping and port chaos, shifting labor resources, trade tensions, spiking oil and steel prices, and changing consumer patterns from brick and mortar to ecommerce, BOPIS (Buy Online & Pick Up in Store), and omnichannel retail, we need to redefine our inventory practices, benchmarks, and KPIs through the lens of uncertain conditions.
If automotive manufacturers could go back in time, do you think any of them would not have stocked up on microchips? This retrospective view makes decisions easy, but looking forward and making decisions is now critical for most organizations.
So, increasing on-hand safety and “just in case” inventory, along with “critical path” SKUs and items, is a first step. This step will, of course, impact storage and labor requirements.
Reducing Labor Requirements
In board rooms around the country and worldwide, we are hearing the mantra, “if we don’t fix our labor shortage, we won’t have to worry about the rest of the issues… there won’t be a business.” With paid bounties, higher wages, and programs to retain employees now common practices, the need to implement warehouse and order fulfillment systems that reduce head count is critical.
The number one killer of worker productivity is walk and search time. In many non-automated facilities, workers walking and searching through rows of rack and shelving looking for the “right part” is creating a huge demand for labor.
Automation has historically been able to reduce labor by up to 2/3. In the old days (a few years ago), factoring in labor and space savings created the go-no-go equation to determine the Return on Investment (ROI), which would justify the investment. This equation today must add in employee cost (if you can find them), the variable cost of running shifts short on labor, the impact on those days orders, and customer satisfaction levels.
Depending on the level of automation your operations should utilize, it’s imperative to understand how your RightFIT solution of basic supply chain and warehouse management techniques such as software-driven slotting, intelligent pick lists, one-touch returns, and existing space maximization can help operations.
Goods to person technologies that bring inventory to the operator (eliminating the walk and search) and integrated pick-to-light have become critical in saving floor space while reducing labor.
Technologies Can Provide Scalability in Your Warehouse and DC
When looking at your next steps, its imperative to realize that bolting “steel” to your floor today is problematic. Issues such as delayed delivery and implementation, the inability to rapidly modify your system to meet your changing requirements, and the capital-intensive nature of purchasing equipment based on your three to five-year growth projections are virtually eliminated by utilizing agile technologies.
To stay agile, lean, and flexible, we look at systems that provide rapid deployment and growth capabilities. Let’s start with robots, otherwise known as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs). This technology has exploded onto the scene for great reasons.
- Wide Array of Applications – AMRs provide solutions for order picking, returns, high density storage, multiple levels of sortation, and material transportation.
- Performance – Many AMRs provide top-level system performance, with picking rates of up to 450 lines per hour per person.
- Availability of AMRs – these bots are often in stock or can be delivered in under 90 days.
- Financial – The beauty of AMRs is the ability to acquire a system that meets an organization’s daily requirements. Then, to meet peak periods, additional AMRs can be leased monthly and then returned after the spikes in activity are done. This provides a fantastic level of flexibility.
- Portability – AMRs can be moved and utilized in different facilities as change is required quickly and easily.
- Optimization – Most AMR systems software comes with automatic slotting algorithms to constantly optimize the system’s performance and easily accept new and seasonal SKUs into the system without additional labor.
- Labor Savings – Most AMR systems will save between 50 to 75% of your existing manual labor requirements.
- Flexibility – Many AMR systems allow you to set up new or ad-hoc workstations for flexible receiving, QC, inventory, picking, and replenishment tasks.
Combining multiple makes and models of AMRs allows organizations to increase a system’s performance to even greater levels. An excellent example is having an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) that feeds cases of SKUs to a sorting AMR system. An operator or robotic arm picks the SKUs out of the case and places it on a waiting sortation AMR. The sortation AMR delivers the item(s) to an awaiting order, chute, or conveyor line. When the last item for the order is delivered, a transportation AMR removes the completed order, places an empty tote to allow the system to continue picking the next order, and then delivers the completed orders to pack a packstation.
Sortation systems are another agile and flexible technology. There are conveyor sortation systems that are available as modules. The pre-built modules are delivered and installed in as little as a day. Besides the agility of these systems, their rapid deployment, system speed, reduced cost, and high performance levels make them ideal for most operations. Likewise, the portability of these modules allows for changes in the system design, performance levels, and even location fluid based on an evolving operational need.
There’s a pandemic and labor shortages today, and tomorrow, who knows? But most organizations that prioritize flexibility and agility in their operations will always be prepared for the next challenge.