Maybe it’s the swelling real estate costs forcing you to squeeze value out of every square foot of your facility. Maybe your business outgrew the local labor pool. Or, maybe your customers’ expectations grew beyond the limits of what’s possible in your supply chain operations. Many industry and market drivers continue to push the supply chain community to innovate. For its benefits of labor reduction, process optimization, around-the-clock availability and more, the expanding field of warehouse automation offers the solutions to these challenges.
Automation and material handling equipment (MHE) is far different than it was 30 or even 10 years ago. It’s a big investment and strategic decision. Thankfully, there’s decades of knowledge out there to help you make smart choices in your warehouse automation strategy.
In a recent webinar hosted by Supply & Demand Chain Executive, Jon Kuerschner, HighJump's VP of Supply Chain Solutions, offered his views on the top technology trends in automation.
Warehouse Automation Complexity on the Rise
Now that businesses rely more deeply on MHE, warehouse automation technology stacks continue to grow in complexity. A conveyor or pick-to-light system might be enough for simple needs. But, we’re seeing multiple MHE endpoints from conveyors to pick-to-light, put-to-light, automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), and more under one roof to handle more demanding customers. We’re seeing even greater levels of complexity when businesses implement automation from multiple MHE providers.
Having multiple MHE systems and even multiple MHE vendors within the warehouse can be a great benefit. But, as you’ll see in the next section, it’s critical to have the right support systems in place to maximize the utility of MHE.
Supply Chain Software to the Rescue
Generally speaking, MHE are specialists that perform repetitive tasks. They’re individual machines working in silos towards the same goal. These siloes can lead to issues if (and when) machines break down or there’s an interruption in the flow of materials. Under this configuration, there’s no central system mitigating ripple effects of issues that crop up in day-to-day supply chain operations.
The key is to relay all the data from MHE back to the warehouse management system (WMS). This offers the greatest inventory traceability, machine health visibility, and material flow optimizations. Often, a “hardware-agnostic” warehouse control system (WCS) from a third-party supply chain software provider offers the best solutions for complex automation operations. Virtually all automation hardware providers offer software. But, many of these systems wont integrate with other MHE within the warehouse. This forces supply chain managers to choose which MHE provider's software solution will control and optimize workflow. This limits your capabilities and reduces optimization opportunities.
Between first-party MHE providers and third-party software specialists, there’s a lot of software in the market. But, this benefits and empowers the supply chain community. With each warehouse requiring unique solutions, options help you get the best systems possible.
Take your time to consider software as a critical component of your automation strategy and consider a third-party solution if the complexity of your MHE calls for a dedicated WCS.
Goods-to-Person Automation Strategy Continues to Grow
A person-to-goods model is fine, but comes with limitations that could set businesses back in certain circumstances. For example, walking across a warehouse floor or reaching pallets on upper racks can slow down the flow of materials in a warehouse. Cold storage and hazardous materials are other concerns that make it difficult (and unsafe) to yield maximum efficiency from a person-to-goods model.
As the workforce continues to dry up, warehouse managers will look for more ways to do more with less boots on the ground. Often, this leads to a strategy where machinery delivers inventory to workers (goods-to-person). Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) and other goods-to-person machinery will continue to grow in popularity. Plus, robots don’t care about the cold temperatures in freezers.
We’re also seeing robots take on more complex tasks in addition to picking and put-away processes. As robotics applications multiply, and the cost of these machines become increasingly manageable, robots will gradually become less bleeding edge and a more mainstream supply chain technology.
Warehouse Control is the Ultimate Traffic Cop
Plan to fail. Yes, warehouse automation can truly overcome today’s challenges and prepare businesses for new obstacles to come. But, it’s machinery. It will eventually break. Or, there will be other issues such as conveyor bottlenecks or aisle congestion. The point is that the right WCS system can help mitigate these issues. When all MHE is under the control of a single WCS, inventory can be re-routed to the path of least resistance. This allows inventory to flow regardless of issues that can (and will) surface daily.
Cloud For Warehouse Control Systems
The cloud continues to surge as a go-to infrastructure for WMS, and some businesses leverage cloud-based solutions for automation management as well. Now that many businesses have reliable, fast WLAN within the warehouse, a cloud-based WCS is in play (unless you need real-time data transference from MHE to the WCS). And as 5G networks proliferate, more options and fulfillment strategies will become available.
A WCS hosted in the cloud offers the support, security, monitoring, compute power, and system reliability cloud is known for. But, be sure you know your system requirements when it comes to data packet delivery before taking advantage of cloud for your warehouse automation systems.
Real-Time Location Systems Add Value to Warehouse Robotics
Robotics are a game-changer, and we’re not just talking about offsetting labor shortages or increasing throughput. They’re changing how warehouse managers track inventory and day-to-day operations. It’s not good enough to locate inventory based on the last PLC scan. With robotics, businesses need real-time location systems (RTLS) to monitor inventory and robots in true real time. RTLS uses GPS tracking that offers the context of where machines are, what they did last, and where people are in relation to robots (for safety and aisle congestion purposes). Using this data, you can make limit aisle congestion, allocate resources to needed areas, and improve inventory traceability.
Warehouse Simulation Puts Your Operations to the Test
Many WCS providers offer emulation tools to help businesses learn more about their throughput needs and limitations on equipment. Newer technologies in this space combine emulation for technology as well as warehouse workers—allowing you to stress test all operations before making strategic decisions.
These warehouse design and simulation technologies focus on testing in a safe, virtual environment. Within a design, you can build the warehouse layout, inventory placement, MHE, labor, and throughput models. Then you can define process for receiving, put away, picking, etc. Then you test your creation by throwing order volume at your designs over a period of time (a business day, for example). Analyzing the results, limitations in your warehouse design become apparent.
Are certain aisles too congested? Is your inventory placement optimized? Does your MHE and labor perform efficiently and harmoniously? You can perform any number of “what if” scenarios to experiment with layout, people, space, equipment, and order volumes from a safe environment until you have the perfect model for your needs. This can greatly improve the ROI of your automation investments and help you make the right strategic decisions.
Warehouse Automation is Trending Up
When planning for MHE and your automation strategy, it’s critical to think about immediate needs as well as how your business may need to scale over time. Hopefully, the trends above give you an idea of all the possibilities an automation system can offer your supply chain operations.
For more details and insight from Jon Kuerschner and co-panelist SSI Schaefer, check out SDCE’s full webinar.