There are many tools available for warehouse automation. However, step one before any automation is adopted, is to insure that your business processes are solid. Otherwise, you will simply “make the train wreck happen faster.” Or, as the CEO of a software company that creates warehouse management systems wrote recently, 'When you automate an operation, you do not necessarily improve the operation, you simply automate.' Therefore, the remainder of these suggestions are based on the assumption that business processes are well defined and inventory management has already been refined.
Warehouse automation can cover a broad spectrum of productivity and tools. A “manual warehouse” would be where a worker, following a pick ticket, would move to a location, pick the goods and then move to a packing location. Someone would double check the items pulled, package, weigh and prep for shipment via appropriate delivery method. This kind of operation may not be completely manual. Forklifts or conveyors may be utilized in some locations of the warehouse. We all understand the inherent risks with a manual warehouse that include pulling the wrong merchandise, the wrong quantities, shipping to an incorrect location, or missing customer specific packaging or shipping instructions.
At the other end of the spectrum is a completely automated system. Automated warehouses use extensive conveyors, sortation equipment, RFID, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), and other material handling solutions that move the goods to the workers. Automated warehouses can increase risks. Very-high-throughput automated warehouses are not nearly as flexible as manual warehouses. With a manual warehouse, it is not that difficult or expensive to move racking, change warehouse flows, or add new value added services. In a warehouse with extensive AS/RS or miles of conveyors, however, making these types of changes is often very difficult and costly.
CHARACTERISTICS OF AN AUTOMATED DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM
Expensive to implement, with a long payback period.
Difficult to move, remove or modify.
Designed to eliminate manual handling and worker judgment – and frequently is accompanied by reductions in labor costs, theft and errors.
Contains high mechanical and/or software complexity, which often makes implementation and thorough 'debugging' difficult.
When a significant part of the system fails, the whole system usually 'goes down' due to a high degree of integration and lack of feasible backup systems. (The ATM system is a good everyday example).
Since manual labor is reduced, the business can operate on three shifts with low incremental labor expense.
EXAMPLES OF AUTOMATED SYSTEMS:
Powered conveyor storage/sortation system.
Automatic storage and retrieval system (ASRS).
Automatic case or item-pick system.
An option between Automated Systems and Manual Systems are “Informed Systems.” Informed Systems depend almost totally on people for their success and usefulness. If the full benefit is to be achieved, there must be complete education, and most importantly, team support, involvement and acceptance. This family of Informed Systems is of course computer-driven, making routine decisions and supporting team members who will apply appropriate knowledge and logic at critical decision points. Working with common material handling equipment, it brings needed information directly to the work site (typically on a 'real time'basis), using bar code scanners, mobile devices, hand-held devices, or other independent machines such as palletizers.
Comparing Informed Systems to Automated, we see the following differences:
Much less expensive, with rapid payback, usually in 6 months or less.
Easier to change, move, expand or contract, as needs change.
There are almost always, major labor savings.
The change-over can be accomplished in "bite size chunks", allowing gradual procedural and attitudinal changes among the workforce. (Some TOTAL change implementation has actually resulted in company failure).
Increases (often significantly), accuracy and speed of task completion
As referenced above, the system is only as good as managerial intelligence, foresight and planning, as well as worker training and user dedication.
COMPONENTS OF INFORMED SYSTEMS:
Computerized stock locator systems.
Wireless communication terminals for fork trucks.
Batch order picking systems.
Barcode-verified picking devices.
INFORMED SYSTEMS AND PAYBACK
If the financial and operational risk of fully automated system is more than your firm is willing to undertake, the informed alternative can allow you to make move into the 21 st century in an effective way. Typically a large percentage of the total project investment can be realized with a relatively short amount of time. The total cash outlay compared to full automation is literally pennies on the dollar.