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Making the move towards warehouse automation

Warehouse Automation – Can you automate your facility?

The rapid growth of e-commerce as well as a shortage of labour in the warehouse is putting immense pressure on operations. The proliferation in SKUs, along with the demand from customers for products delivered quickly and accurately, is driving the move to warehouse automation. The shift from physical stores to online means more labour is needed in DCs and warehouses than ever. Rising wages in the current inflationary environment means thinner margins. Micro-fulfilment centres, those smaller storage facilities that are located closer to the end-consumer, are often automated to reduce costs and optimise throughput. Speeding up the movement of goods means lower management costs, improved revenues, more sales and satisfied customers.

Traditional Processes vs Automation

In non-automated warehouses, workers move items manually from unloading incoming trucks to packing, picking and loading items for delivery. It is possible to improve manual processes to some extent if every item has a dedicated location in the warehouse and the most appropriate storage solutions are being used. Automation of processes can deliver greater productivity, better use of labour, and fewer errors, all leading to reduced costs. 

  • Productivity can be greatly improved with better inventory control and faster and more accurate picking and packing.
  • Reduction in travel distances and less traffic means a safer workplace.
  • Better use of employees working well with efficient automation solutions.
  • Errors cause delays, frustration and poor customer service.
Where to Automate?

Picking, Packing and Dispatching   

Automated solutions have the biggest benefit in picking, packing, and shipping customer orders. More than 50% of the average DC labour force is involved in these processes. Picking, packing and despatching items using the fewest resources at the lowest cost is the aim. Fewer employees using automated tools means fewer mistakes and higher productivity. Machines can work 24/7 without breaks.   

Automation solutions include:

  • Semi-automated bagging where the bag is presented to the packer to fill. The label is automatically applied to it and the bag is dropped into a container for dispatch.
  • Fully automated bagging is an in-line solution that shapes the bag around the item.
  • Boxing fragile and high-value items by cutting a box to size and closing it.

Moving Goods Around the Warehouse

Various types of robots are being used extensively to pick, pack, batch and prepare items for despatch. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are replacing forklifts and are practical in small DCs. They can operate in small spaces and can work within your existing space. Conventional conveyors are being replaced by mobile robots which are cheaper plug-and-play solutions. Inventory control can be improved using drones. These have embedded scanners that increase the accuracy of stock control by navigating warehouse shelves and taking automatic stock counts. 

Receiving Goods

Managing any receiving operation is becoming more complex due to the increasing variation in volumes and sizes of products. Shorter throughput times are putting receiving operations under pressure as well as restrictions on available floor space. Manually recording goods received is open to human error and provides no traceability. Scanning labelling on incoming pallets provides full information about the items e.g., name, colour, size, etc. and immediately matches them to the order. Scanning equipment differs in its level of complexity and is available at many price points.  

The Role of WMS in Automation

Affordable and scalable cloud-based Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) are becoming commonplace. A WMS focuses on integrating data to get the best results from physical assets and automation tools.

Devices such as mobile phones, wearables, sensors and radio-frequency identification tags (RFID) are used to retrieve and process data from automated equipment speeding up warehouse processes. The costs of a WMS are continuing to decrease due to new entrants in the marketplace and increased competition.  

Taking the First Steps
  1. Document the status of your warehouse operations.
  2. Identify high-volume repetitive processes that take up too much time.
  3. Consider how an automated solution could simplify tasks and reduce activity times. Better productivity leads to fewer employees and less cost.

Considering automated solutions for your business is a process that requires you to identify, access, and compare the benefits of the best tools available, whatever your current situation and budget.

More to come about advanced robotic solutions and collaboration with humans in Part 2.

It is important to find the right balance of suitable and affordable technologies whatever your business.

SCCG can help you to identify, access, and compare the benefits of the best tools available, whatever your current situation and budget. Our warehouse automation consultants will undertake an operational review of existing facilities. This includes analysing business data to understand the product range, material flows, stock, and order profiles

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