Material handling plays a critical role in any warehouse operation. Any inefficiencies in this process will cause delays further down the line, and it can also be a hotbed for injuries. As a result, the industry is shifting to automated material handling systems at an increasing rate.
Warehouses today are embracing automation more than ever before. Experts predict that the warehouse robotics market will be worth $9.5 billion by 2027. Autonomous material handling accounts for a substantial part of that growth.
No business should follow in the footsteps of others for the sake of staying abreast of trends. So why should you embrace automation in your material handling operations, and how can you do so successfully?
Why Adopt Automated Warehouse Systems?
Warehousing’s rapid automation isn’t a fruitless trend. Autonomous systems present several benefits to warehouse operations, most notably in the realm of efficiency. Automated storage and retrieval systems can lead to an 85% productivity increase in a notoriously inefficient process.
Traveling can take up more than half of a worker’s time, which they could otherwise spend on value-adding tasks. Automating the picking and transport process, at least in part, will free these employees to work elsewhere. These systems are also typically more accurate, so they’ll further boost productivity by reducing lost-time incidents from picking errors.
Automated picking systems also improve worker safety. Musculoskeletal disorders account for 33% of all worker injuries, and material handling is likely to lead to these conditions. Automating this process can spare employees from lifting heavy loads, preventing musculoskeletal injuries. You may be on board with the reasons you should embrace automated material handling, but how can you do so?
Consider Your Needs
The first step in implementing any automated system is to analyze your current operation and determine your needs. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to automation, so you need a comprehensive understanding of your strengths and weaknesses. Once you’ve analyzed these, you can move forward with establishing a system that works for you.
First, assess the materials your warehouse workers handle. Anything that’s especially heavy, delicate or hazardous is prime for automation and will likely need a unique system to account for these particular handling requirements. You should also consider the available space within your warehouse.
Your solution should be compatible with the rest of your warehouse, both digitally and physically. If a system is too small, it may not be able to move much, but if it’s too big, it could block your employees. If you have any other automated systems, you should also try to get a cross-compatible solution.
Of course, your budget should be another crucial consideration. Surveys show that cost is the most significant barrier to automation adoption for most organizations. Remember, you may not see immediate improvements, so don’t spend too much on a system if you need a fast payoff.
Choose the Best Fit for Your Facility
Once you have a fuller understanding of your needs, you can pick out an automated material handling system. First, you’ll need to decide between a pre-built solution and a customized system. Custom-made automated warehouse systems will fit your unique needs better, but they also tend to be more expensive.
You’ll need to work closely with designers and suppliers to create the optimal tailored solution. This process can be lengthy and involved, so prepare yourself if you choose to go that route. If the slow start and higher initial expense are too much for you, you can find plenty of pre-built options on the market.
Another choice you’ll face is the level of automation you want to incorporate. A fully autonomous solution could cost $25 million or more, but semi-automated installations can be as low as $5 million. Typically, the more advanced technology you incorporate, the higher the price will be, but you may see better results.
Not every warehouse needs a cutting-edge, fully automated picking solution. If you have a limited budget or already have efficient material handling processes, a semi-automated solution could be sufficient. You may also want to take a hybrid approach, installing fully autonomous systems in your least efficient areas and less advanced solutions where you’re stronger.
Start Slowly Before Expanding
When it comes time to start implementing your solution, start slowly. It can be tempting to apply automated material handling everywhere at once, but this is a reckless approach. Start with a few installations and monitor how they work before you expand.
Once you install automated systems, it can be challenging to change your workflow again. These machines tend to be less flexible than human workers, so large-scale adoption can lead to disruptions. If you start small, you can identify potential issues and work out the kinks before automating the rest of your warehouse.
A gradual start will also help warehouse employees adapt to the new workflow. Instead of requiring everyone to learn the new system, teach only a few workers at first. When it’s time to expand, those workers can start training everyone else.
Gather Data and Benchmark
As you continue to use your automated material handling system, remember to benchmark. These systems are a substantial investment, so you want to keep an eye on them to ensure they’re working as they should. The data you gather can inform future automation decisions as well.
Start gathering data in the material handling process before you automate. Analyze picking rates, time spent traveling and labor costs, so you have a baseline for measuring improvements. After you implement your system, keep track of the same data to see where and how much you’ve saved.
Not every automated warehouse system will deliver the lofty promises you’ll hear about automation. Benchmarking will help you see how close you get to these goals. If the results are disappointing, you can adjust your automation strategy, and if they’re promising, you can expand comfortably.
Get the Most Out of Your Automated Material Handling
Automated warehouse systems can save you a lot of time and money, but only with careful implementation. If you follow these steps, you can ensure you get the most beneficial solution for your particular needs. Automation can seem like a daunting undertaking, but step-by-step planning and implementation can lead to substantial improvements.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over 3 years covering stories about warehousing, logistics and distribution.