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Scope, Complexity and Cost: Calibrating Your Warehouse Automation Strategy

Historians believe that the Greeks changed the direction of writing from right to left or top to bottom to the western style of left to right to accommodate the limitations of the innovative reed pen, which snagged the fibers of papyrus. Imagine that; the newest technology of the time fueled fundamental changes to the way we conduct business today. Innovation often comes in waves, and warehouse automation is reaching a crest. And so, as new tools — and new limitations — flow into modern warehousing, it is important to consider the innovations on the horizon that will help you meet your labor challenges, customer demands, and organizational goals.

We have seen a recent explosion of demand for automation in the warehouse, from curiosity to major infrastructure investment. Indeed, there are several types of warehouse automation systems now in existence, each varying greatly in scope, complexity, and cost. Yet many logistics leaders are struggling with the starting point for their automation journey; so to help, I’ve put together this overview of the four key types of automation, how they work and for what use cases they are generally best suited.

Traditional Warehouse Automation: Conveyors, Divertors, and Sorters

Sortation systems identify items on a conveyor system and divert the products or packages to specific destinations. These systems are often used to route or sort items and packages to carrier-specific cages or doors for shipping but can be far more elaborate in their complexity. Stations in automated conveyor systems can include:

  • Order pack check. Using weight check, image recognition, RFID, or other technologies.
  • Order wrapping. Used to stabilize items in shipping.
  • Box assembly. Building shipping containers around the items in the order.
  • Inserting packaging material.
  • Closing the box.
  • Weight and ship. Preparing the order for transportation by a common carrier.
  • Adding the final destination, often courier specific, to the container.

Commonly used for transportation of inventory and packages without adding labor, they are simple to install and operate and are often combined with other forms of automation. While inflexible and often expensive to build, they usually have a low running cost and a limited technology stack. While this is the least glamorous of modern warehouse automation, it is still the most common and often forms the backbone of warehouse automation solutions.

Pick/Put Systems

Pick-to-light systems employ alphanumeric displays and buttons at storage locations to guide employees in light-aided manual picking, putting, and sorting of packages or products. These light buttons and displays often have colors and numbers to highlight quantities and unit-of-measure instructions for the items being picked. Voice-picking systems augment the normal visual prompts with audible voice prompts and capture activity via voice responses. Both light and voice picking has the ability to free up the hands of the picker to make their workflow more efficient and, in the right application, can significantly reduce friction in the picking process.

There are key issues that must be mentioned in both light and voice picking. The amount of data that can be presented or collected is, by the nature of the technology, very limited. “Pick this many” and “did you pick them” are simple binary types of responses and both light and voice picking suit this kind of function well. As the conversation gets more complex, the user’s ability to direct the workflow becomes more and more difficult — until simply using a scanner and RF terminal is more effective. Applications from pick/put systems should be very simple and repetitive in nature for them to be successful and when considering the application this should be primary in the evaluation.

Most commonly, pick to voice is used for high-volume case picking in retail or grocery while pick and put to light are used for small parts in high-volume order fulfillment, and where picking items are more prone to error, such as for cosmetics or shoes. Used in conjunction with the right application, these solutions can be amazing upgrades to warehouse efficiency and accuracy. Word of warning, however: These systems are not panaceas and there are legions of failures where the application and problem these systems are trying to solve simply do not match the solution.

Goods-to-person Systems

Goods-to-person (GTP) systems store products within the system and automatically transport the goods directly to the operator as needed for picking, thus eliminating picker travel time. These systems are increasingly used to eliminate labor costs in high-volume picking scenarios and provide very high-speed and accurate picking processes. When looking at GTP systems, it is important to consider initial capital cost, since they can be very expensive to set up and implement. Also important is the realization that you are building a system with a single point of failure; if there are maintenance issues once implemented, there is no reverting back to manually picking. Keeping GTP systems well maintained and running smoothly is, therefore, a vital part of this form of automation.

These systems have many forms, but include:

  • High-density, small, and light goods picking is often used in grocery and e-commerce, ASRS systems may run from a bin-based or shuttle-based process where goods are stored and retrieved inside a very dense cassette of storage bins.
  • Carousel (vertical and horizontal). These are similar yet simpler versions of ASRS systems with bins attached to a spinning carousel. The system or operator enters the pick list into the system and the system presents the appropriate bin to the operator for picking.
  • Vertical lift modules. These are built where there is sufficient height in the building to take advantage of the system. They can manage heavier goods than ASRS and carousels and may often be used for not just picking but order consolidation and parts buffering in the warehouse. These systems may be best employed where picking is one part of the entire order value-added process, which requires rework and processing for orders prior to being shipped.

Most commonly, goods-to-person automation is used for e-commerce fulfillment, high-volume single-piece picking, and high-volume picking in a market where there are tight labor conditions.

Robot Systems

Warehouse robots are used for either transporting goods — often automated lift trucks to heavy load carriers — or to assist in picking, packing, sorting, and storing goods. These robots can perform tasks in an automated manner or collaboratively work with existing warehouse material handlers. They are usually added to the existing warehouse infrastructure, require the least modification of a warehouse design to implement, and often demand the least initial capital cost.

There are two basic robotic automation picking processes. The first involves robots that come to a picker who picks inside a zone and marries up goods from a picking bin to the robot then moves onto the next zone for more of the order; alternately, the other process involves a robot that can bring racks or bins to the picker in a semi-GTP process. Both are effective in their own application and some warehouses may need both to maximize the potential of robot automation.

Robots are still being used predominantly by early technology adopters in the warehouse; these include 3PLs needing picking flexibility and organizations that need automation but resist adding significant infrastructure changes. In addition, warehouses that face heavy seasonality and order volatility are investigating robots since they can be added and removed as needs fluctuate.

There’s No ‘Easy’ Button

As an automation-agnostic supply chain software provider, I often hear that a silver bullet for automation would be a very welcome alternative to the hundreds of technologies emerging today. Though, as you can see there is no ‘one automation fixes all my problems’ answer, and most warehouses will end up with more than one type of automation to address the specific problems found in their specific environment. In next month’s article, I will be discussing how to start the journey to automation and how to make the various automation technologies work together effectively.

About the Author:

Bill Denbigh serves as the vice president of product marketing at Tecsys. Bill started working in supply chain software some 30 years ago; his entire career has been laser-focused on designing and building pragmatic supply chain solutions that address the real problems that customers are facing in their supply chain operations. Bill has worked on virtually every aspect of the software in the supply chain, gaining insight into the inner workings of some of the industry’s most complex challenges; Bill, however, tackles those challenges with a no-nonsense levelheadedness that has earned him great repute both internally and among customers.

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