Take an Incremental Approach to Automation Installation, Investment

Warehouse automation. The term calls to mind expensive, complex, high-speed, highly mechanized equipment operating in the dark, with nary a human in sight. Yet—if reading this blog achieves nothing else—let your takeaway be that there are actually four levels of automation (generally speaking), and that only a handful of facilities in the U.S. house installations of that highest level. The rest have invested in a more affordable degree of automation that delivers process improvements in key areas to enhance productivity.

automation scaleAutomating your warehouse breaks down into the following four levels of increasing sophistication and investment:

Level 1: Conventional picking with process improvements delivered via warehouse management system (WMS), order picking system such as radio-frequency (RF) or voice-directed picking, and/or a labor management system (LMS).

Level 2: Mechanized solutions that automate horizontal movement and reduce non-value added activities (like walking), such as conveyor, pick modules, stretch wrap applicators, label print-and-apply, and layer picking equipment.

Level 3: Semi-automated equipment that improves storage efficiency and further minimizes travel and manual handling with storage carousels, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), conveyor and sortation, and warehouse control software (WCS) to direct equipment operation in line with the WMS.

Level 4: Fully automated, high-speed (and yes, potentially “lights out”), greenfield installations that include a combination of high-density AS/RS, extensive conveyor and sortation, automated layer picking, case palletizing, WCS and WMS.

The key to determining the right level of automation for the typical conventional warehouse is to apply it to those processes that are not adding value.

For example, picking. The typical associate spends just 40% of his or her time picking items to fill orders; the other 60% is spent walking to, between and from picks. Associates picking from paper lists are not only less efficient, they’re also more error prone and likely not paying attention to inventory management rules—such as first-in/first-out (FIFO) stock rotation to prevent items from expiring before distribution. Adding automation at the lowest level of complexity and cost (such as a WMS to optimize picking paths and ensure that the oldest products are picked first) can bring tremendous value and cost savings to a facility at a modest investment.

Further, each subsequent level of automation should build upon the previous step. That’s why it’s important to work with a supplier or systems integrator who can plan a solution that grows incrementally with your operations. The ideal automation installation should be both flexible and scalable, ensuring that each step into the next level further enhances your existing equipment and processes (and prevents a previously-installed technology from being scrapped).

Want to learn more? Attend viastore’s free, on-floor educational session—dedicated solely to the exploration of this topic—at MODEX 2016: “What Level of Automation Makes Sense — An Incremental Approach.” The session will run on Tuesday, April 5 from 12:45 – 1:30 p.m. in Theater H. Or, drop by our exhibit in Booth 1439 at the Georgia World Congress Center Hall B throughout the show, April 4-7, 2016. Can’t wait until MODEX? Call viastore at 616.977.3950 to chat about which level of automation makes sense for your operation with one of our warehouse planning specialists.

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