When it comes to improving efficiency, accuracy, speed and cost savings, automation is increasingly being viewed as the go-to tool in warehouses and distribution centres. Yet while it can be an extremely powerful tool it doesn’t always mean it will be the right fit for your processes or solve all current goods-handling problems. Human workers remain better at certain tasks, so the question is then determining when and where automation is best put to use.

Regardless of anything else, automation can only be successfully deployed in a facility when integrated with a warehouse management system (WMS), which will be able to organise and keep a close eye on every transaction taking place. Even when automation isn’t in place, a WMS improves efficiency across the board, helping to identify the best pick paths and optimising the process for every step leading up to shipment.

Finding the ROI

Robotic automation is a term that includes all the methods used to bring inventory directly to the order picker, minimising their movements in the process. These are known as GTP (goods-to-person) systems which can include things such as vertical lifts, carousels, mini-loads, retrieval systems (AS/RS), automated storage and automated material-carrying vehicles. In addition to that you also have automated conveyers that direct products to the next stage of the process.

One of the biggest issues faced by companies when it comes to investing in automation is the large upfront cost and ongoing maintenance fees. In general terms, physical automation can offer a worthwhile return on investment in facilities that have a high enough volume of activity.

It should also be remembered that human workers offer more flexibility when it comes to adapting to new and unexpected conditions. For example, a single operator using a carousel pod will have a limited pick rate which may not be high enough for a rush of late orders towards the end of the day. However, if multiple workers were able to access the same inventory in fixed shelving during busier periods if could provide the same, and perhaps more, levels of efficiency.

Automation does not offer the same level of ROI for every business, so it is imperative that each company conducts detailed due diligence to ensure investment is worthwhile. The calculation can be reached by assessing the number of lines and pieces that are being processed and the amount of productivity achieved before and after automation is in place. Successful deployment of automation can help stabilise workforces who operate in markets that experience a lot of turnover or volatility. Streamlining the headcount of staff could allow a business to increase wages and benefits for remaining workers, which in-turn would reduce turnover and improve stability.

Prepping for automation

Before adopting automation in your facility there are a number of other processes you should consider implementing. Firstly, assign or develop a team (or individual) that will be responsible for managing the integration and choosing the functionality that is needed. They should also be involved in the planning and creation of the necessary processes that will be used. It’s important to avoid long delays during this period as it could have a direct impact on how quickly the team is developed and ultimately whether or not automation is invested in or not.

Whilst the purchase price of the initial automation solution will largely be front and centre, there are other cost considerations that need to be reviewed early on. This includes long-maintenance and repair costs, as well as the possible need to adjust the existing layout of the facility in order to accommodate the machinery. If there are also plans to expand in the near future, or if it is even a possibility that could occur, this should also be accounted for to ensure the automation can accommodate those changes.

Amongst all of this the staff should not be overlooked. Create a support plan that will provide the right level of training and technical support for the planned changes as this will ensure the implementation process is a lot smoother. There will also be a large migration of data involved in integrating the new solution, along with the amount of time needed to support this change. This is something that can be discussed and planned with the company providing the automated solution.

Automation offers a wealth of benefits to businesses but given the costs involved and the potential changes it would make to your business, it is imperative to ensure it is the right move. Talk with others who have gone through the same to get unbiased advice, and if necessary, dip your toe into the water slowly and invest carefully in areas before going in big.

How to prepare for automation

To thoroughly prepare for automation you should cover the following steps:

  • Research and plan: Consider the stability of your demands current product range and the level of flexibility needed to cope changing needs within the business. Look at operational areas that use repetitive tasks that could be automated. Mechanisation could also be looked at as a stepping stone into automation before making a large commitment.
  • Meeting suppliers: Make a shortlist of potential suppliers and whilst allowing space for innovation, ensure they have enough information to write their bids. The entire liaison process can take as long as 6 months and a lot of work from the project manager. This should also include site visits for the supplier to understand the scale of the work required.
  • Choosing the supplier: Create a method of evaluating the pros and cons of each supplier so you assess each bid in an unbiased way. Also refer to other departments such as sales and marketing, IT and operations to ensure the solution fully fits their requirements.
  • Manage the risks: Risk assessment plays a vital role in choosing the right supplier. Assess whether risks can be managed by the design or using other methods. Also take into account things such as utilisation percentages, integration with existing systems, scalability, installation timeline and available SKU support and storage medium used.