The Future-Focused Playbook: What to do before automating your warehouse

Are you about to start the journey to warehouse automation but struggling with where and how to begin? There is so much interest and evaluation of automation projects in the warehouse right now, which is leading to confusion and concern around just how to start the journey since starting in the right direction will give you the highest chance of success. Warehouse automation can be treated just like any other large logistics project with a few caveats:

  • Automation does not solve all warehouse problems and careful analysis must be performed before you sign the check for any type of automation;
  • Getting the right kind of automation for the right problem is critical; and
  • Understanding where you want to be AFTER the automation is implemented requires some detailed soul searching and facing up to the reality that can often be an uncomfortable process.

Assuming you have considered these points, there is a good chance that you will succeed. If not, then it is likely that your automation project will be added to the long list of white elephant projects that were common in the early days of warehouse automation. So, what are the steps to prepare for warehouse automation?

Figure Out Your Warehouse Data

First and most critical is data, data, data; get your warehouse data right and clearly understood. The details will differ based on your specific situation, but here are some key categories to review:

Products

Get accurate information about the sizes, weights, handling characteristics, environmental considerations, and time-based restrictions that influence how products need to be moved and stored. Successful warehouse automation starts with highly reliable core master data about products; just a few “surprises” of non-standard or unexpected product types will hurt or sometimes cripple automation productivity.

Resources

Every person and piece of equipment in your warehouse has a data profile which includes: Location, status, capabilities, limitations, and capacities that can be allocated and reallocated as needed to adjust to demands. Make sure you have a deep understanding of these resources to greatly reduce the time and effort of accurately and realistically responding to customer needs.

Locations

You need to know every location in your warehouse, in terms of size and weight capacities, plus restrictions about what can or can’t be placed within them. This includes every place products might be kept, such as dock areas, staging areas, and overflow floor locations. Take into consideration processing stations where assembly, packaging or value-added activities take place. You’ll also need to know the locations for in-transit resources such as carts, forklifts, pickers, conveyors, and bots.

Transactions

Every physical change in product, location and resource status requires a data transaction that tells you what items did what, when, and where. An accurate recording of transactions is the lifeblood of successful warehouse automation. Modern data analytics and application of machine learning aren’t possible without accurate and timely transactional data to spot patterns, flag problems, and opportunities, plus provide situational awareness and options to well-trained industry professionals.

Understand Your Needs

Good automation preparation shines a light on what products are handled more often and which ones may be candidates to eliminate. Product variety and volume numbers as part of an ABC analysis are fundamental. You absolutely must develop detailed order and item profiles for your project. Average percentages over time can be misleading, so also look at how variable (growth/decline rates, peaks and valleys, seasonality, etc.) each product can be.

Know Where You Are vs. Where You Want to Be

After you have deep knowledge of your warehouse and customer data, you are ready to plan for growth. Along the way of collecting all this data, you’ve likely had many “are you kidding me?!” moments where you found process holes and wasted actions. This necessary step of discovery helps you right-size your products and your procedures.

Here are three questions you’ll want to discuss in the final step of your warehouse automation preparation stage:

What are your project motivations?

Most warehouse automation projects focus on doing more with less. This means more orders, customers, product variety, channels, volume, and revenue growth — but in less time and with minimal investment in additional resources and space. Automation enables you to be more responsive, so you can scale up or scale down your operations. Targeting a part of the warehouse for automation within the larger warehouse facility might be the answer rather than sweeping automation of the whole facility. That’s why it’s critical for your business to have a firm consensus on what you’re trying to achieve, so you implement the right solution for your needs.

What do your forecasts look like?

During the preparation stage, make sure you are regularly evaluating forecast accuracy across the supply chain and within facilities to better understand how stable or unstable demand patterns really turn out to be. Segment the data and understand what inaccuracies in forecasts cause the greatest grief, then plan for them because you can’t be perfect, just less wrong.

Where do you want to be?

How much more needs to flow through your facility? You must have performed steps one and two above to truly determine your current capabilities and customer needs before determining a realistic direction of where you want to be. A thorough self-assessment of future direction and needs is a must for warehouse automation projects. This information will be critical as you move into the evaluation stage for warehouse automation where you will review a wide variety of automation types and investigate possible consulting and integration partners.

Prepare and succeed

The preparation stage of warehouse automation is about obtaining your data and defining the fundamentals of what problem needs to be solved. While each stage is of equal importance and contributes to the overall success of your warehouse automation project, taking your time and putting extra focus on this preparation stage is going to help your business in the end. If you don’t, you’ll run the risk of wasting time and money by creating a solution that doesn’t do what you need it to do.

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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