When people think of warehouse automation, they picture a futuristic operation where robots do all the work and humans are left either with nothing to do or trying to save the world from evil machines. Neither vision could be further from reality.
But, while warehouse automation can provide your business with a ton of benefits, it's not a simple fix. The truth is that there are plenty of difficulties surrounding implementing and using automation solutions. But the rewards are well worth the effort. Here is why automation makes sense for your warehouse or distribution business and some of the ways you can overcome common warehouse automation challenges.
What is Warehouse Automation?
Warehouse automation is the process of automating the movement of products into, throughout, and out of a warehouse or distribution center with less worker assistance. When implemented correctly, a warehouse automation solution can eliminate many manual and labor-intensive processes.
Why Warehouse Automation Makes Sense
Warehouse automation is a vital part of optimizing the supply chain because it reduces the effort, time, and errors caused by variable, manual tasks. Specifically, here are some of the ways that warehouse automation makes sense for this type of business.
1. Increases employee productivity
With warehouse automation, businesses can streamline their operations to boost efficiency and productivity. This doesn't necessarily mean you lay off all of your staff. Instead, these solutions help your staff better do their jobs so they are more productive.
2. Boosts accuracy
One of the main reasons customers choose one online retailer over another is the quality of the experience. If your business becomes known for shipping out the wrong orders or delivering broken items, it's going to harm your business. Automation can nearly eliminate picking and packing errors, helping your overall reputation.
3. Reduces costs
It costs money to deploy automation solutions, but you get an immediate return on your investment. You can slash the labor costs associated with your order fulfillment process. And the cost of dealing with inaccurate orders should also decrease significantly.
4. Improves Safety
Warehouses can be hazardous environments, and warehouse work can be exhausting for employees. When you deploy automation solutions, workers aren't as physically taxed, so there is less opportunity for them to get hurt and fewer chances for accidents caused by fatigue.
Common Warehouse Automation Challenges
The benefits of warehouse automation are undeniable. Companies that don't take this vital step are sure to find themselves struggling to keep up with the competition in the coming months and years. But automation isn't without its pitfalls, particularly in the implementation stage. Here are some of the most common warehouse automation challenges you're likely to encounter.
- Rigidity — Some outdated systems can't be updated or disassembled once installed.
- Customization — In the past, automation lacked standardization. For a fully-developed system, it could take up to a year for deployment.
- Investment — Some automation systems require a high upfront investment with an average ROI of just ten years.
- Scalability - After you've made an investment, the solution you choose may not be scalable.
- Integration — Ideally, you would want any automation solution to integrate with your existing systems. But, not all of them will do this.
- Service — Some automation tools require frequent and costly maintenance and service.
Overcoming Automation Challenges With Best Practices
The effort it takes to implement warehouse automation successfully can be underestimated. The good news is that the industry is moving toward more standardization, which makes implementing and scaling automation much simpler.
Of course, there are many choices in warehouse automation solutions. Fortunately, it's an industry that continues to evolve, giving customers better and more versatile products to streamline operations. Here are some of the best practices you can follow when choosing and implementing your automation solutions to avoid many of the common challenges we listed.
1. Get the Right People on Your Team
How your business approaches automation will have a lot to do with its success. First, you should have an internal team assembled to spearhead the project and secure cultural buy-in from the rest of your employees. There are a lot of misconceptions about automation, and your team can confront these early in the process.
Next, figure out how you will implement your automation solutions. Will this be a DIY solution, something the product's manufacturer can help with, or a project that requires an automation consultation? Depending on how many systems you need to integrate with, your answers may vary.
2. Consider the Entire Supply Chain
Most warehouse owners and managers are authorities on what goes on inside the walls of their facility. But an effective automation solution will provide benefits and visibility throughout the entire supply chain. For example, when you use RFID labels and a shipper that also scans these items, you instantly get real-time data about location and important metrics.
3. Optimize Your Existing Systems First
Before you start bringing in robots to take over all of your operations, take a look at some of the simpler and more labor-intensive systems in your warehouse that you can optimize. For example, the order picking process is prone to errors because workers must walk back and forth so many times and rely on things like clipboards for their information. Consider using a combination of solutions like RFID tags, wearables, and voice technology solutions to simplify this process and make it more efficient.
4. Think Long-Term
More and more of today's automation solutions are scalable. The wearable and voice technology solutions we just described can be implemented one section or department at a time. As more systems are introduced into your warehouse, think about how they will work together long-term to help you minimize some of those common pitfalls. Provided the systems work together and are simple to upgrade, you will continue to experience the gains in productivity and efficiency you need.
In today's fast-changing industrial environment, warehouse automation can be a powerful tool to give businesses a strong competitive advantage. Because implementing and using automation can be complex, these tips for overcoming common warehouse automation challenges can help your business improve its performance without dealing with many common missteps.