5 Lessons Learnt From Warehouse Automation Projects

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Warehouse automation projects can be extremely complex endeavours, that should transform the efficiency and productivity of logistics operations. However, they also come with their own set of challenges, risks and learning opportunities. From real-world examples, several key lessons have emerged that highlight both the potential and the pitfalls of projects designed to automate warehouse functions. Here are five critical lessons learned, accompanied by examples of the risks to be avoided:

Comprehensive Planning and Scalability is Crucial

Successful warehouse automation requires thorough planning and consideration of future needs. It is crucial to not only assess the current requirements, but also anticipate growth and changes in demand. Scalability should be a core feature of the automation strategy, allowing for adjustments and expansions without major overhauls. This involves choosing modular and adaptable technologies that can grow with your business.

Before embarking on automation, a detailed analysis of current and future needs is essential. This includes understanding the types and volume of handling units, processes, environment and infrastructure, target markets and handling requirements for retail/wholesale/direct channels, sales seasonality, and volatility. Failing to adequately plan can result in systems that can be either over-engineered or insufficient for future growth, or worse still do not satisfactorily meet the business needs.

For example, a company installed an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) designed for its current inventory size and throughput volumes, without adequately modelling the future expansion potential. Two years later, as the product range expanded, the system couldn’t handle the increased demand, leading to costly downtime and additional investment in expansion sooner than anticipated, with the associated operational interruption.

Integration Challenges Can Derail Projects

Integration challenges are common in warehouse automation projects. It is essential to ensure that new automation solutions can seamlessly integrate with existing warehouse management systems (WMS) and other IT infrastructure. This requires a detailed understanding of current processes and possibly custom development work to ensure compatibility. Effective integration ensures real-time data exchange, enhances decision-making, and streamlines operations. Ensuring new automation technologies work seamlessly with existing warehouse management systems (WMS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems is critical. Poor integration leads to data silos, inefficiencies, and errors.

Whilst the optimum solution will frequently include the adoption of a number of different technologies, these may well be provided by different suppliers to provide “best of breed” performance.This mix of technologies produces additional integration challenges that often derail the overall success of projects if not addressed at the correct juncture in the project.

For example, a retailer introduced robotic picking systems into their warehouse without accurately integrating them with the other warehouse control systems (WCS) and the inventory system/WMS. This resulted in the robots picking incorrect items because the presentation sequencing for pick accession was compromised and the inventory data was not accurately updated in real-time, causing – wrong deliveries, customer complaints, a great deal of costly reworking, and service delays.

Underestimating the Importance of Change Management

Introducing automation into a warehouse environment often leads to significant changes in workflows and employee roles. Effective change management practices are vital to ease this transition. This includes comprehensive training for staff on new systems and processes, clear communication about changes, and support structures to help employees adapt. The human aspect of automation projects is as crucial as the technological one. And is often overlooked. Effective change management, including training and support for staff affected by new technologies, is essential for a smooth transition.

Indeed, as an early part of any automation project, extensive consideration needs to be given to the changes that will become essential to layouts, material flows, systems, and processes. To mitigate this, consideration should be given to adopting an “evolutionary” approach (phased implementation) to such upgrading rather than “revolutionary” approach (big bang!). Whilst external resources can frequently bring a fresh pair of eyes to the “process” and identify appropriate improvements, it is vital that the operational team have ownership of the improved processes, and ensuring this is successful is an integral element of any project.

For example, a distribution centre implemented conveyor belts and sorting systems without adequately training staff on their operation and maintenance. This led to operational errors, reduced morale among workers who felt frustrated, disengaged, and undervalued, and ultimately impacted adversely on performance and the project’s success.

Maintenance and Reliability Are Key

All Electro-Mechanical systems can fail from time to time, and automated systems are no exception. When they do, they will significantly disrupt operations. A proactive maintenance plan and quick access to technical support are essential to minimize downtime.

Therefore, fully understanding the maintenance expectations and options early in the project process is essential. Sufficient resource/effort must be devoted to establishing effective availability measurements and agreements during the negotiation of the maintenance contract(s). 

Maintenance costs and the cost of spares provision will also help to inform when making the decision to appoint the chosen supplier by establishing the “whole life cost”.

For example, an e-commerce company faced significant delays during their peak season when their automated sorting system malfunctioned. The lack of a proper maintenance agreement meant that repairs took longer than expected, resulting in order fulfilment delays and damage to the company’s reputation, as well as financial losses.

Continuous Evaluation and Adaptation

Warehouse automation should not be a one-time project but a continuous process. Regularly assessing the system’s performance and optimising the equipment’s functionality in coordination with process changes, to respond to changes in the product range/market needs and/or improving productivity.

Technology is developing on a continuous basis, and this requires an approach that identifies appropriate improved equipment and adopting new technologies or strategies at the most beneficial timing, for ongoing success.

Regular reviews of the systems performance and processes can help to predict the potential changes in both demand and available technologies – keeping you ahead of the curve.

For example, a logistics company failed to update its automated systems over time, leading to inefficiencies as newer, more effective solutions entered the market. Their reluctance to adapt resulted in higher operational costs and lost competitiveness compared to rivals who embraced innovation.

These lessons underscore that while warehouse automation can offer significant benefits, its successful implementation requires: –

  • Careful planning at the start of the journey.  
  • Effective integration, and robust program management during the journey.
  • Detailed appreciation of the needs of the process management and engagement of the key operational team throughout the journey.
  • Diligent management of the maintenance regime during the life cycle of the installation.
  • On-going monitoring and review of the systems performance and the market developments.

Each example highlights the importance of addressing potential pitfalls proactively, ensuring that warehouse automation projects not only improve efficiency and productivity but also remain adaptable to future needs and technologies.

For more information visit our Warehouse Automation Design page

Logistics and Supply Chain Consultants: Experience you can trust

“Bisham used their experience & expertise to ensure we sourced the right partner and took a safe path through supply chain transformation, which ultimately allowed us to meet our strategic supply chain objectives”

Justin Porter, GM Finance & Operations 

Pioneer DJ Europe

“Brammer has worked with Bisham Consulting on a number of projects over the years. I have invariably been delighted with their approach and the quality of their output. Bisham Consulting has supported Brammer on new warehouse design and delivery, the implementation of warehouse systems, and facilitated the definition of supply chain strategy. All the members of the Bisham Consulting team that we have worked with, and continue to work with, are experienced and pragmatic. They are intellectually rigorous, but with a real-world approach to solving sometimes very complex problems.”

Nigel Trend, Director of Business Integration

Brammer

Bert van den Berg, Service and Parts Development Director
Hiab USA Inc.

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