Considerations for both automated warehouses and mechanised solutions.
In competitive markets, efficiency in distribution is an important factor in minimising costs and creating competitive advantage. Logistics automation for processes such as put-away, retrieval, order picking, sortation, palletizing and vehicle loading can be a powerful way to address this, coupled with the challenges in the logistics field presented by new competitors, overcapacity in the industry, increased customer expectation and the advances in multichannel distribution.
Allied to these influences, ongoing technological innovation and competition among automation suppliers is allowing the benefits of warehouse automation to become more economically accessible than in the past.
Within the Materials Handling Equipment (MHE) and Warehouse Automation Suppliers landscape, there has been a great deal of consolidation between organisations. For all of these reasons the Automated Equipment Suppliers services are in high demand which means they are enjoying full order books and clients are working with longer lead times. In the current market, understanding where suppliers are in terms of the manufacturing/installation capacity and timelines is even more critical than previously.
Levels of Warehouse Automation
There are two principle categories of equipment that can be deployed:
- Mechanised solutions in which the product/material is transported to operators working in ergonomically optimised and efficient areas, with software-directed instruction.
- Fully automated solutions where the movement and transportation of the product/materials is carried out by mechanical equipment that is directed entirely by software systems.
For many industries and market sectors, the most successful approach is to develop solutions that utilise the most appropriate technologies from the two categories in combination, in order to deliver the best benefits of mechanisation and automation, whilst mitigating the associated risks. The volatility of market demand is often a key determinant of the degree of automation that a business should opt for.
The potential to ally either of these approaches to a “robotised” fine handling solution is emerging. The potential use of CoBots (Collaborative Robots) is high on the development agendas of several of the major Automate Equipment manufacturers – although it is early days and, other than some limited applications in specific operations, most complex manual operations remain beyond the capability of CoBots; however as with all technological innovation it is only a matter of time.
With breadth of areas where these technologies are developing (at a pace) continually widening, it is vital that in reaching decisions on automation the full range of the alternative technologies is considered, to ensure the application of the technology solution that is most appropriate for a company’s current operational requirements and is adaptable to potential future changes to the business process.
Potential benefits of Warehouse Automation
Solutions that are based around a mix of mechanisation and automation deliver a variety of benefits to differing distribution operations. Some of these are ‘hard’ benefits, while others are ‘soft’ less tangible improvements that nevertheless serve to improve the level of service offered to customers. A key principle is that any business priority is to effectively service customers and achieve a good service level at an affordable cost.
These many benefits include:
- Improved productivity on the part of the operatives, with far less time spent unproductively moving from point to point, thus enabling higher throughputs with less resource.
- Improved working conditions including a reduction in manual effort, which again helps increase productivity but also reduces fatigue, raises morale, and reduces absentee rates. This coupled with general improvements in safety.
- Reduced cycle times, as automation speeds up batch-planning, order-picking and packing processes, and can dramatically reduce order-to-delivery cycle times.
- Higher space utilisation as automated equipment can provide better storage density, often without compromise to stock access.
- Improved inventory management, stock visibility and control as a resulting from accurate recording of product from receipt to despatch, thereby improving the procurement process and reducing the cost of inventory.
- Improved levels of accuracy which leads to an enhanced customer experience
- Enhanced security through reducing contact with warehouse operatives and hence exposure to theft. A factor that is key for high value products.
- Reduced handling errors and damage to product and equipment as automated systems operate at consistent speeds, handling items securely and precisely.
- Lower transportation costs using intelligent software to organise loading of vehicles, ensuring optimum space utilisation and correct drop sequence for the most fuel-efficient routes.
- Better management information through improved gathering and storing of relevant operational data, enabling the ability to utilise this information to assess the impact of changes to volumes, product mix, and service levels.
- Faster processing of returns
In conclusion, within an era of fast-paced technological innovation, market change including digital disruption and continuing globalisation, many industries must face up to the challenges of improving distribution centre productivity, controlling inventory and optimising logistics.
Distribution automation is one area which may address some of these business improvement goals, however, this approach needs to carefully consider business objectives, the nature of the market operated in, the risks associated and the potential return on investment.
We at Bisham, undertake a range of projects to assess, evaluate and advise on the practicalities, and potential benefits and risks of automation.
Bisham has design experience but more importantly we have market knowledge and very good supplier relationships. We offer a design tailored specifically to each customer based on individual requirements.
Some of our mechanisation/automation projects include Arcadia, Brammer, River Island,7/11 (Far East)
For more information and to speak to an expert please contact us on 01628 487000