With costs and inflation rising, warehouse owners need to look at ways to drive down overheads to sustain their own growth. As experienced warehouse consultants, one of the main recommendations we offer to clients is to invest in supply chain automation, as it enables you to deal with a multitude of issues cost-effectively, while also improving the way the way you work. Here we discuss warehouse automation in supply chain management, highlight some real world examples and cover the many benefits of an automated warehouse.

What is supply chain management automation?

Supply chain management automation utilises digital technology to make warehouses and distribution centres more efficient. They streamline processes and connect applications within supply chain operations in a variety of ways, increasing productivity and lowering costs to produce better outcomes.

While use of automation was growing over the past 5-10 years, in a post-pandemic world the need for these types of solutions are more important than ever. Major issues with traditional supply chain methods were exposed during the lockdown era and automation can play an important role in modernising and improving many of these practises to help both suppliers and their end customers.

What are examples of supply chain automation?

Below we cover some of the most common types of supply chain automation and explain the benefits of an automated warehouse.

Warehouse management systems

An efficient warehouse operation is dependent on strong backroom support and warehouse management systems (WMS) help to provide that. They ensure staff and management have easy access to crucial business data and analytics that can provide real-time insights that can better manage costs and product movement across the supply chain.

For example, some WMS are based on Radio Frequency ID (RFID) which enables you to collect, transfer, verify and update bulk data related to the location of your products. This is a real-time system covering the full breadth of the warehouse supply chain, which minimises scanning errors and the manual labour usually associated with this type of work.

By improving the system responsible for managing your inventory, warehouse space can be maximised, productivity elevated and sales increased. Use of a WMS gives you clearer visibility on stock levels and makes it easier to process returns and refunds, reducing wastage and making it easier to capitalise on new market opportunities.

Automated picking systems

One of the most labour intensive – and time consuming – aspects of any warehouse is order picking. It takes time to go to the aisle, find the product, retrieve it, and then head back to the sorting and packing area. An automated warehouse picking system simplifies the process while also making it faster, which improves subsequent parts of the supply chain.

Using an automated warehouse picking system will help to reduce human errors and lower the time it takes to find and sort products by identifying the most efficient routes each and every time. There are a host of different automated picking systems available and picking the right one will depend on how many items you hold in your inventory, your warehouse set-up and order volumes.

Automated guided vehicles

There are several different types of vehicle that can be included in the automated guided vehicle (AGV) category. This includes everything from pallet carts to smart forklifts, making it easy to transport goods to different locations in the warehouse. Digital pathways are created to enable the vehicles to safely move around with human driver assistance.

Some warehouses that are restricted on aisle space rely on narrow automated trucks that are specifically designed to work in constricted spaces. Where high shelving units are in use, these machines can enter the space to safely retrieve or deposit items, reaching higher levels than would be possible with humans.

Robots and drones

Robots and drones are becoming increasingly common in warehouses, finding use in tasks such as picking, packing and moving goods. Automated robot arms are put to use for more repetitive jobs, which increases accuracy and reduces errors, while also improving health and safety and allowing human workers to be used elsewhere onsite.

Drones are helpful for checking items at height, carrying out stock takes and audits and performing high risk safety checks. Models that include imagery technology can also send visual alerts immediately to relevant teams who can take faster, decisive information based on the information they have to hand.

Pick-to-voice systems

A voice-directed system is a hands-free solution that uses simple voice prompts to direct workers to specific locations in the warehouse. It then provides information about which products should be picked to complete outstanding orders. One of the best benefits of this technology is that it leaves pickers’ hands free of any other tasks such as pressing buttons or reading information, which improves pricking accuracy time and speed.

Automated storage and retrieval systems

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) vary in type, including carousels, lifting modules, shuttles and more. They are an attractive option because they reduce the need for manual labour in picking operations, which improves speed and accuracy.

Just as importantly, AS/RS help to optimise storage, which is crucial for many companies where space it as a premium and moving to larger premises is not a cost-efficient option. This allows for narrower aisles and higher storage racking, which increases storage density. Using this type of technology and warehouse setup can lead to greater throughput and profitability.

Wireless Fleet Management

This type of technology refers to the monitoring and management of a fleet of vehicles, which inside a warehouse t can be things like manual or automated forklifts. By digitally tracking activity and having clear sight of equipment location, you can analyse the efficiency of the fleet and the routes taken around the facility.

The usage data provided can also be used to manage maintenance of the vehicles and minimise downtime. Telematic systems will be able to feed back data related to incidents, impacts and other security and safety alerts, which makes the environment safer for workers and increases the lifespan of your equipment.