Pros and Cons of AS/RS for Warehouse Automation
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) have gained a lot of traction over the years as more and more warehouses, order fulfillment operations, and materials handling operations have embraced the technology. And it makes sense why: There are many advantages to using AS/RS to automate or partially-automate a warehouse.
With this growing use of AS/RS, the logical question that comes to mind for many warehouse managers is: How can I know whether AS/RS is a good fit for my industry and for my operation? Is investing in AS/RS the right decision for my business? What is the ROI of implementing AS/RS? What are the pros and cons of using AS/RS that I can weigh to decide whether or not implementing them makes sense for my business?
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If you’re thinking about using AS/RS technology to automate your warehouse or order fulfillment operation, it’s important to realize that they are not a perfect fit for every industry, operation, or business. To help you determine whether or not implementing AS/RS makes sense for your operation, we’ve compiled a list of the major pros and cons of AS/RS that you should consider before making any decision.
Advantages of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
1. Reduced Labor Costs
By implementing an automated storage and retrieval system in your operation, you can reduce labor costs in a number of ways. In extreme cases, some operations can employ a single AS/RS to replace all picking labor, freeing up workers to focus on other more productive functions. Although this is not typical, the potential efficiencies gained by a thoughtfully executed AS/RS can have a positive and lasting impact on your profitability. By removing the need to expand your workforce, the one-time investment of purchasing and implementing the AS/RS system has the potential to remove the ongoing costs that would come with a new hire such as healthcare, payroll taxes, salary increases, training, etc.
2. Fewer Labor Constraints
Even if an operation has the funds to expand their workforce with new hires, sometimes outside factors (geography, job market, demographic trends) can constrain the labor supply and make it difficult to expand. AS/RS removes some of these constraints by allowing automation to take the place of employees. This means that warehouse employees can be redirected to higher-value tasks that make your operation more profitable while lower-value, repetitive tasks are handled by technology.
3. Increased Safety
Whether because of distraction, fatigue, hunger, psychological or emotional stress, one thing is certain: Humans make mistakes. When humans make mistakes while operating heavy machinery such as forklifts, tragedy can result. Incorporating AS/RS systems into your operation allows you to remove some of this unpredictable human element by replacing workers with machines that do not get tired or distracted. This can have a tremendous positive impact on an operation by increasing safety, thereby reducing accidents and damage to the product, structures, and equipment.
4. Increased Accuracy, Productivity, and Efficiency
As mentioned above, humans are error-prone. No matter how well-trained or diligent, eventually errors will happen. In addition to causing safety issues or damaging product, these errors can also impact workflows and lead to inefficiency. A pallet of product delivered from storage to the wrong department can, for example, cause confusion, traffic jams, and a shutdown of order processing until the error is fixed. By allowing AS/RS systems to manage the components of your operation that can be automated, these inefficiencies can be removed, ultimately reducing waste and increasing output. And all of this will allow your operation to become more accurate and, therefore, profitable.
5. Can be Modular
Though an AS/RS system can be a costly expense for an operation to absorb (as we discuss below), one often overlooked benefit is the fact that they can be modular. An operation can migrate inventory segments into AS/RS one at a time—for example, prioritizing fast-moving product first—limiting initial expense, and allowing you to slowly transition to full automation.
6. Better Use of Space
AS/RS carries another benefit for operations that are constrained by a small footprint. By making better use of the space available in a facility, AS/RS can remove the need for a costly redesign or expansion. AS/RS typically requires narrower aisles than do human-operated forklifts; racks can reclaim vertical space, and automation can allow for high-density storage that is difficult to achieve by traditional means.
Disadvantages of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
1. High Initial Investment
In the long run, implementing an automated storage and retrieval system is likely to reduce labor costs and increase productivity. But these benefits come at a cost: The cost of the initial investment. Like many automation endeavors, purchasing an AS/RS is more expensive in the short term than hiring personnel or using other equipment such as forklifts. This initial investment can be a challenge for smaller operations that don’t have ready access to capital (although equipment leasing options can help some businesses reduce this barrier to entry).
As with any kind of equipment or technology, AS/RS will need to undergo routine maintenance and occasional repair. This will undoubtedly lead to some operational downtime as occasional repairs and maintenance are made. And though still cheaper than the ongoing costs of hiring and employing additional staff, the costs of this maintenance should be considered before implementing any new system.
3. Not Suitable for Highly-Variable Operations
AS/RS, like all automation technologies, are best suited for operations that have regular, predictable, and repetitive tasks. Operations that vary widely in terms of product or materials handled from week to week or month to month may find it difficult to make AS/RS fit into their business plan. Because AS/RS works according to preset systems, processes, and analysis, rapid change can be difficult to facilitate.
4. Can Require Technical Skill and Retraining
As with any new warehouse equipment, your employees will need to be adequately trained to safely handle your new AS/RS systems and get the most out of the technology. This will, of course, lead to some downtime while training takes place, and could lead to turnover of current staff.
The Bottom Line
Though AS/RS is a powerful tool that can dramatically increase productivity, efficiency, and profitability for many operations in many industries, it isn’t for everyone. If you are considering implementing an automated storage and retrieval system in your facility, be sure to weigh the pros and cons of AS/RS use that we have outlined above to determine whether they would compliment your operations.