Thinking Warehouse Automation? It’s OK to Think Small First

Often, when thinking of warehouse automation, what comes to mind is a lights-out, fully-automated facility that accounts for every item in inventory and removes people from the operation. In reality, however, material handling automation can be applied incrementally, enhancing only the specific processes to maximize return on investment.

Automating your warehouse can actually be considered as having four levels of increasing complexity. At the lowest cost end of the spectrum are systems that improve conventional picking—such as warehouse management (WMS), radio-frequency (RF) or voice-directed picking systems—or mechanized solutions that automate the horizontal movement of products and reduce labor handling requirements (like conveyor, pick modules, stretch wrap applicators, label print-and-apply, and layer picking equipment).

The key to thinking small when considering a warehouse automation project is to first evaluate your entire operation, end-to-end, to identify bottlenecks that might be resolved with a minimal investment in a localized solution. Areas to consider include travel time and picking product requirements—as in pallets, cases or eaches.

With travel, look at how much time is spent by operators walking from point A to point B, as opposed to positioning them in one location: How much more throughput could be achieved by a small investment in warehouse automation to eliminate that travel time?

For example, an installation of 30 feet of powered roller conveyor can create a dramatic uptick in operator productivity by removing the walking time and distance a picker must cover multiple times a day to deliver picked items from the end of an aisle to their next destination. Such a solution also reduces worker fatigue and improves ergonomics, and also contributes to higher throughput.

When considering picking product requirements in operations that have shifted from picking pallets to cases, or cases to eaches, look at how pickers are interfacing with the items during picking and transport. Gravity feed conveyor for pick face replenishment might be an adequate, low-cost/high-impact mechanical automation investment. For operations with existing automated conveyor in place, length or side frame modifications might accommodate the change in handling format without a complete overhaul.

The ideal warehouse automation supplier will first audit your current handling processes and determine (or validate) handling and movement bottlenecks—areas you thought might be ideal candidates for automation might not actually be. If an investment in small-scale warehouse automation does make sense, the supplier will partner with your operation to develop plans to implement and expand automating your warehouse in an integrated, scalable way that accommodates future growth or changes in your business—while still respecting your budget.


Read how electronics manufacturer Phoenix Contact split inventory between conventional and automated handling equipment to maximize handling efficiencies and eliminate bottlenecks. Then, call us at 616.977.3950 to learn how a small warehouse automation project can deliver big returns for your operation.

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