Pandemic conditions have improved, but the new era of labor shortages and increased demand continues for warehouses. In this environment, some say a steady increase of automation within warehouses is occurring. This month, Material Handling Network talks with industry leaders about how they see automated processes building new opportunities in warehouses across the industry.
A ‘time to shine’ for warehouses
At AutoScheduler, CEO Keith Moore said the company aims to be “the brain” inside distribution centers. The company launched two years ago inside Procter & Gamble, where Moore said the business founders “cut our teeth.” AutoScheduler.AI is a warehouse resource planning and optimization platform that “dynamically orchestrates all activities on top of your existing warehouse management system in real-time,” the business website said. The solution is designed to focus on and optimize all of a warehouse’s critical activities, including dock scheduling, loading, unloading, case picking, and creation of transfer orders, the site said.
“With more supply chain challenges than ever, AutoScheduler combines data from numerous systems into a single operational plan for warehouses and distribution centers. It takes disparate data, identifies bottlenecks, and prescriptively creates plans to orchestrate campus operations for optimized efficiency,” the website said. The aim of the company is to help planning to be more effective, according to Moore, who said today AutoScheduler workers with some of the largest consumer goods providers in the industry.
As a solution designed to work on top of a Warehouse Management System to orchestrate plans and processes, AutoScheduler is able to work many moves ahead of what is occurring, according to Moore. He said this is not unlike how technology is now able to orchestrate outcomes in a chess game. In chess, there are 64 squares and 16 pieces under a player’s control, and “since 1997, it has been impossible for a person to beat a computer,” said Moore, noting how many moves ahead a computer can see.
Similarly, AutoScheduler is designed to incorporate a bigger picture in coordinating items, people, and equipment. The more complexity, the more opportunity, according to Moore.
In the current environment, Moore said he believes inventory concerns for warehouses might “smooth out a bit” but labor will remain in demand. “That’s part of why automation has become so popular over the past few years,” he said, noting there are fewer employees working many years on a job, making it more difficult for companies to build the productivity and consistency desired.
“People are understanding they need to do something to get consistent productivity out of the warehouse, to be able to meet the demand in a consistent way,” Moore said. “The challenge is, people that run operations, they’ve been in supply chain and logistics for a while and they’re not technologists,” he said. This is where AutoScheduler can help, according to Moore.
He said AutoScheduler solutions help to orchestrate planning systems, making sure all of the processes flow and work together. In general, Moore thinks productivity rates are a little lower today versus five years ago due in part to the impacts of labor shortage. “It’s hard to replace a really experienced forklift driver,” Moore said. That said, he also believes warehousing and operation teams are more innovative now.
“Warehouses are probably getting the investment needed,” said Moore, who said there are more technologists and more investment in automation overall. And as focus outside the industry focuses on supply chain and material handling in general, Moore added that it is a “remarkable” industry to work in. “It’s warehousing’s time to shine,” he said. “We can take opportunities and take advantage of what we have to innovate and drive value.”
Tecsys is also offering solutions for warehouses across the globe. The company’s supply chain solutions software is currently used in over 100 countries across the world, according to Adam Polka, Director of Public Relations. “Our solutions and services create clarity out of operational complexity with end-to-end supply chain visibility. Our customers reduce operating costs, improve customer service, and uncover optimization opportunities,” said the business website.
Bill Denbigh, Vice President of Marketing, described how many of the company’s Nordic partners have incorporated automation in operations of all sizes. “They look at automation as part of being a solution to the future. I think there is a realization that adopting advanced supply chain solutions isn’t anymore just for the big boys,” Denbigh said. As automation solutions are explored in companies of all sizes, tighter circumstances are sometimes a driver, according to Denbigh. “I’ve got to get today’s orders out by 2 p.m. or I’ve got real estate issues I can’t outgrow anymore. Or I want to offer my customers a service that my competitors don’t offer or can’t,” he said.
Automation offers ways to personalize, create unique packaging options, and more, according to Denbigh. He is seeing more engineering work in warehousing, describing one of Tecsys’ customers, a third-party logistics provider, that has many engineers on site. “They take an organization in and say, ‘We’re going to design a system for you. Specific racking, processes, we’re going to allow you to do these things,” Denbigh said.
He also described how one of Tecsys’ customers designed systems to create the special sustainable packaging their own customers wanted. “It’s not going to slow down. It’s going to be a force,” he said, of automated advances, describing how his wife’s shampoo company sends her the product she wants when she needs it and with her name on the label.
All of this requires a sophisticated process. “Think of the technologies that are required to supply that,” said Denbigh, noting how well this tailored approach works. “It’s locked in my wife as a consumer,” he said. A grocery retailer, however, would not require this type of system, according to Denbigh. So, he envisions a future of specialization within warehouses.
Tecsys offers diverse solutions, from a simple warehouse management system that is implemented from the first touch to life in 28 days to an enterprise-grade system in which a project can be six to eight months, according to Polka. “Automation is not one thing,” he said, advising businesses to consider what a company needs and to make plans and adjustments from there.
“It’s a journey. You don’t take your first steps along a journey unless you know where you are going,” Polka said. “It’s all about understanding what you’re trying to solve, the specifics of where your business is going, and where you want it to be in a few years. The items you’re handling, the volume of orders, and the time frame. And then deciding what kind of automation is needed.”
Denbigh agreed. “Automation’ is such a multi-faced thing. Just because you’ve got cobots running around doesn’t mean you’ve solved your problem,” he said. Denbigh noted some of the low-impact, easy-to-implement automated systems available today didn’t exist five to ten years ago. Mid-to-small size warehouses can adopt them with a level of skill and technology,” he said.
In general, automation is becoming more accessible for warehouse operations, according to Denbigh. “It’s exciting times. There is a lot going on, there are a lot of people trying lots of things,” he said. While supply chain and labor issues continue, there is plenty of progress, too, according to Denbigh. “There’s a lot of success going on. Lots of projects happening,” he said.
While automation used to be reserved for only large pallets or case warehouses, times have changed thanks to e-commerce, growing SKU catalogs, lean inventory policies, and increasing customer expectations, according to Jon Schechter, Business Development Manager at AutoStore. “In the past decade, new solutions, while important, have also contributed to the pile of brown cardboard boxes that accumulate outside our homes,” he said.
Modern solutions tend to be modular, allowing warehouses to scale down to small and medium-sized facilities, according to Schechter. “What’s exciting is that this collaboration can increase the overall productivity of a workforce by 2 to 4 times,” he said, noting that modular solutions also allow for inventory to be condensed and therefore be located in distribution centers closer to consumers.
Automation is “an enticing draw” for employers in a tight labor market, allowing brands to restructure staff or to get more done with less workforce, said Schechter. In most cases, automation is a goods-to-person solution, which Schechter said can help increase order fulfillment ties exponentially and allow warehouses to better utilize existing resources. The time it takes to deploy automation in a warehouse hinges on several factors, according to Schecther.
“At AutoStore, we’ve been able to deliver working systems in three months, but our standard lead time is 12 weeks from purchase order to delivery from our factory,” he said, noting that one of the most important things to keep in mind when moving to automation is the amount of time needed to implement the system in the distribution center. “So plan for six to 12 months for most automation projects. In this time period, detailed design, site readiness, software integration, and project planning need to be considered as well,” he said.
Companies should also take into account business growth. “The storage capacity you have at the moment may not be best later down the road. Phasing can allow a seamless transition within a live operation, and more than half of the systems we deliver at AutoStore are expanded at some point to meet growing storage and/or throughput needs,” Schecther said.
To help work around delays that sometimes occur, Schecther advised planning ahead. “The material handling industry has not been immune to the component and transportation delays of the past two years. Shortages put a major strain on distribution centers because e-commerce orders do not cease just because inventory is low,” he said. “At AutoStore, we’ve been able to predict and communicate lead times regularly to ensure we meet customer’s desired dates,” Schecther said.
“For other brands, supply chain shortages have increased the need to expand storage depth onshore to meet demand. This is where automation can play a major role. When the automation solution reduces storage footprint but increases the storage density, there is the potential to increase the SKU volume and breadth,” he said.
Eileen Mozinski Schmidt is a freelance writer and journalist based in the Greater Milwaukee area. She has written for print and online publications for the past 13 years. Email Networkeditorial@MHNetwork.com or visit eileenmozinskischmidt.wordpress.com to contact Eileen. If your company would like to be featured, email Networkeditorial@MHNetwork.com