4 Options For Designing an Automated Warehouse
For a time, automating all or a portion of your warehouse or distribution center was seen as a “nice to have” for many operations. It wasn’t a necessity, but something that could dramatically improve the efficiency and throughput of many larger facilities.
As time has gone on, however, this dynamic has changed. Today, large, mid-sized and even small operations increasingly view automation as a must have in order to deal with rising labor costs, labor shortages, and heightened customer demands. Without automation, it’s simply becoming more and more difficult to keep up with your competition let alone the expectations set by industry leaders like Amazon and Walmart.
Not sure which strategy makes the most sense for your operation? Speak with a member of the Conveyco team!
Is labor, customer expectations, expanding inventory and your competitors becoming a factor? Are you considering automation for your operations? Below we take a look at some of the key considerations that will impact your automation options, and then present a number of options that could work for you.
Key Considerations in Designing an Automated Warehouse
Before you make any sort of decision as to the types of automation you’d like to implement within your facility, it’s important to take stock of certain considerations that will impact your decision. These include:
1. Your Industry
What industry do you serve and operate within? This is one of the most important questions to ask, as different industries have different requirements in terms of packaging, throughput, order profile, and more, all of which will affect the types of technology that end up being leveraged.
In addition to industry, it’s important to have a sense of the different sales channels you operate in. Do you supply wholesale? B2B? Direct-to-Customer? E-Commerce? Each of those different channels tends to have different types of order profiles, which will, again, impact the technologies and processes that you leverage.
2. Your Inventory
The inventory and the shape it takes—both inbound and outbound—will influence the equipment and systems that you are able to leverage within your facility. With that in mind, it’s important to have a clear sense of your inventory as well as how you receive your inventory and ship your orders.
How many different SKUs does your facility handle? Do all of these SKUs leverage the same types of packaging, or is there variance? What about the physical attributes (size, weight, geometry) of each individual SKU? On top of that, when you receive your inventory, what does the packaging look like? What does it look like in storage, and when you ship orders? Full or partial pallets? Cases? Totes? Individual pieces in boxes or polybags?
3. Your Facility
If you are building greenfield with no existing footprint, you have much more freedom when it comes to actually designing your facility around the systems, processes and equipment that you want to leverage. But if you are retrofitting an existing operation with new equipment, you’ll have many more constraints: Namely, the current specifications of your facility.
Factors you’ll need to consider include:
- The building’s height
- Whether or not you can reclaim vertical space through the use of mezzanine or other technologies
- The facility’s existing aisle width, and your willingness to change it
- Any existing automation resources of technology you already have
- Your software including ERP, WMS, WES or WCS and their strengths and weaknesses
4. Your Labor
Both your existing labor requirements and challenges and your future labor goals will impact the technologies that you ultimately leverage.
With this in mind, you should ask yourself: Are you looking to automate processes in your operation because you are currently experiencing a labor shortage or excessive costs? Or do you anticipate rising labor costs or a scarcity of labor in the future that you are trying to get in front of? Likewise, what processes are currently being handled manually which could be improved through automation so that you can deploy your labor resources elsewhere?
5. Your Required ROI
Finally, it’s crucial to have a sense of the ROI requirements that you’ll need to meet in order to justify the project: Not only in terms of dollar amount, but also in terms of timeline and other KPIs. With today’s labor being scarce, many organizations are finding it impossible to fill existing shifts let alone meet the growing demand because of growth. When an organization’s growth is outstripping the available labor market, automation becomes not only important, but imperative to keeping your customers happy and sales growth climbing.
Warehouse Automation Options
Using your answers to the questions above, a skilled warehouse automation integrator will craft a solution that is perfect for your needs. The options run the gamut from partial automation all the way up to full automation.
1. Addition of Software
Depending on the technologies and equipment you are currently leveraging in your operation, something as simple as upgrading your software through the addition of a warehouse execution software (WES) could dramatically increase your efficiency. This is especially true in instances where you find that you have so-called “Islands of automation” within your facility where a lack of communication between those islands causes friction and inefficiencies. State-of-the-art WES systems are specifically designed to orchestrate an operations labor, technology and shipping demands.
How to Save Your WMS With a Warehouse Execution System (WES)
How a WES Can Augment Your WMS to Optimize Your Supply Chain
3 New WES Qualities that Create Success
Why Operations Need a WES That Is Ready-to-Run
2. Automation of a Specific Zone or Application
Don’t need your entire facility or operation to be automated? You might still benefit by automating a specific zone, process, or application within your facility. You can approach this in a number of different ways, including identifying those areas that are currently the greatest bottleneck for your operation as well as determining which areas offer the greatest opportunity for improvement. This route can be a great path for businesses that would like to automate their facility over a longer term, in a staggered, zone by zone process.
3. Full Automation
Thanks to recent advances in automation technology, it’s possible to design a warehouse that is fully automated all the way from receiving to packaging and shipping. In a fully-automated warehouse, labor costs are drastically reduced, though you will always have a certain level of labor required for things like maintenance of machinery.
Full automation will typically be achieved by integrating the following technologies and designing workflows that allow them to flow in the most efficient way possible:
- Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
- Automated Sortation
- AMRs, AGVs, and Robotics
- Packaging Automation
- Pallet Handling
- And more
Of course designing a fully-automated warehouse will require a certain level of investment that many organizations can’t financially justify. In these cases, semi-automation likely makes the most sense. Designing a semi-automated warehouse will involve identifying the areas that should be prioritized for automation while also considering those processes that can be efficiently completed by labor resources.
For example, one operation may be best served by automating tasks such as inventory replenishment and material transport, while another operation may be best served by automating picking and packing processes. Likewise, instead of fully automating a task, it’s possible to semi-automate processes throughout the entire facility, such as through the use of co-bots that work alongside humans at each step.
The Importance of a RightFIT Solution
In crafting an automation strategy for your operation, it’s crucial that you settle on a solution that is custom made for your business needs, challenges, and goals. Here at Conveyco, we achieve this by leveraging our RightFIT Methodology that guarantees the ideal solution for each of our clients. The application of this methodology will ensure that the warehouse automation option you adopt is right for your business.