Automating the warehouse-side logistics chain
Published on 1 April 2019
Warehouses are jumping on the automation bandwagon in order to remain competitive amidst stiff competition. At the heart of this change, logistics flow management is greatly improved when all levels of the logistics chain are mechanized. But just what advantages does warehouse automation offer and what consequences can this have on internal organization? Moreover, what technical solutions exist today to optimize logistics chain operations in a world where e-commerce is increasingly dominant? We lay out the details for you below.
Benefits and challenges of warehouse automation
Although mechanization offers a plethora of advantages from an operational standpoint, it can be quite limiting for warehouse managers. This should be kept in mind when gauging the return on investment of a warehouse automation system.
Advantages of an automated warehouse
A major advantage of automated warehouses is their capacity to improve productivity, counter hiring difficulties during activity peaks and reduce arduous working conditions by eliminating some low value-added tasks. Mechanization can also be useful when taking on cost issues and scarcity of space, since several solutions offer a storage densification feature.
The notion of rate of service is now omnipresent in logistics strategy. In today’s world, it is imperative to improve the quality of services provided by reducing the number of execution errors. This paves the way for automation by taking increasingly heavy pressure off the shoulders of supply chain operators.
Warehouse automation challenges
Even with a tax credit, the costs for an automation project are quite high, especially when e-commerce operations are involved. Online sales often make for orders that are extremely resource-heavy. It’s why e-commerce order preparation is for the most part manual, except in some countries like China, where logistics chains generally deal with enormous volumes.
Once automated, system maintenance can also be quite complex to manage. To maintain operational capacity in the event of breakdown, companies must react quickly and consider escalation situations. Additionally, warehouse automation can reduce process flexibility. An automated system is more difficult to modify, and can prevent a company from growing.
There’s also the question of profitability during quieter periods in sectors highly subject to seasonal sales. Despite systems being sized to respond to peaks in activity, a warehouse’s equipment could be underused during such lulls. It is advisable to automate on the basis of an average period of business and to compensate for needs with alternative or temporary hiring solutions.
Whatever the case, the connection of automated devices to an information system must be an anticipated, planned event. Prior to implementation, equipment must be compatible and able to interface with the warehouse management system (WMS) in use.
Technical solutions for every level of the chain
Many technical solutions on the market today facilitate warehouse automation, storage, and merchandise reception during order preparation.
When receiving merchandise
Generally, receiving merchandise in a warehouse offers little potential for automation. Warehouse automation solutions include the use of conveyors to route boxes at unloading time. Other conveyors can then store products automatically. This is a “basic” type of mechanization which, in some cases, does not require any interaction with the information system.
During storage operations
There are also several mechanization solutions to optimize storage operations. These are automated systems that move through aisles picking up and dropping off products from storage locations. Some systems manage palettes, boxes, or unitary products stored in plastic cases. They are fairly speedy and sophisticated enough to meet specific needs.
Several technologies are grouped under this umbrella:
Palette receiver cranes. A mechanized arm with forks moves palettes around. These cranes exist in either single or double depth. They can often be seen in the mass distribution sector, where a massive flow of full-range palettes are managed.
Mini-load. A shuttle equipped with pick-up arms can handle 1, 2, or 3 boxes. Several technologies are present on the market and differ in their grip techniques, the system’s ability to raise itself, and whether they are managed with or without a skid.
Multi-shuttle. Plastic case products can be handled with these shuttles. The technology is perfectly suited to low-weight and low-volume products and offers fast speeds. Such shuttles are often used in the pharmaceutical sector.
Carousel. With this device, the storage system moves as a whole to bring the right case to the pick-up/drop-off location at the head of the aisle. Cases are usually multi-reference, meaning that several product types are stored in a single one. The system implemented by the mechanic can select products that differ visually, in such a way to prevent picking errors before they reach the production line.
The world of sorters is too vast to be covered in this article. It speaks from the standpoint of e-commerce, a world in which sorters are used less. The power and speed of sorters is greater than with the systems described below. That said, they offer less flexibility and are intended to work with larger, more stable volumes.
When preparing orders
The automation of retail preparation often requires that large volumes be present to make sense cost-wise. Product quality and unit cost requirements are also determinant items when calculating return on investment.
The offering of systems is extremely variable in this field, but before speaking about actual mechanization, it is important to mention three technologies which often go hand in hand with it.
Voice preparation or “voice picking.” Voice preparation has picked up major steam in the past ten years. In this scenario, instructions are given to a preparer via a vocalization system that transcribes verbal WMS instructions. Preparers also interact with the system using their voice or terminal when needed. This lets them keep two hands free, offering better ergonomics and major productivity gains.
Pick to light. Using this system, products ordered are routed in cases or boxes spread out next to a ventilation wall. A lamp lights up to indicate the spot where they should be picked up. For some systems, a panel indicates the quantity, which is confirmed by the operator during pick-up. The system requires an upstream device that can potentially be automated, for instance in the case of goods to man, which we mention in the next section.
Put to light. In this case, products ordered are assembled upstream and a lamp turns on to indicate the area where the product or products should be placed. The system is particularly effective when managing promotional campaigns or “first push,” during which a large volume of a single reference is distributed to a high number of orders.
The most common mechanization system encountered during preparation is called goods to man. With a goods to man solution, merchandise is sent directly to the operator tasked with finalizing order preparation. The process is particularly suited for products with low turnover.
The system uses automated storage techniques to perform pick-up and conveyance and operate self-guided vehicles. These techniques are necessary to get merchandise to set workstations. There are two major types of technology:
AGVs, or Auto Guided Vehicles, are systems of shelves that are moved by robots. This system of robots was made famous by Amazon, who repurchased a manufacturer nearly 10 years ago. The principle involves bringing products located on robot-operated shelves to a set workstation where they are needed. The operator is then guided to collect the product and quantity that correspond to a particular order.
Potential drawbacks to this type of solution include slow transit and a low storage density due to limited shelf height. Shelves must be low to allow for operator accessibility and to remain stable during movement. The solution is particularly suitable for low turnover products, but it has recently been coveted in other scenarios for its very low error rate.
- Conveyor transport. With conveyor transport, a wide variety of mechanized systems route products to a set workstation. Often, a combination of mini-load, multi-shuttles, and carousels connected by conveyors direct products in cases or boxes to a referral system. The referral system then routes products to the right station. Following collection, the operator sends back cases that are either sorted automatically or directed to a follow-up station.
Workstation ergonomics are different and require more movement than with a shelf system. The solution is faster and offers better storage density, but with less flexibility and a greater cost.
Systems connected to logistics solutions
When dealing with mechanical objects, warehouse automation systems must not be dissociated from company information systems. Logistics solutions, such as WMSs are constantly changing and at the moment, they are well positioned to tackle management issues in the operational domain.
Further reading: Five benefits of the next generation WMS
This type of software has become essential for processing large volumes of data from sensors and connected objects. It includes various features that can resolve issues specific to the supply chain and can also enable users to head up logistics operations in real time, offering 360° visibility of inventory.