It might not be evident in plain sight, but warehouses play an important role in the experience that consumers like us derive from a product. Warehouses are often overlooked as mere storage units for the temporary safekeeping of commodities. But the activities that unfold inside a warehouse can ultimately decide whether a product is available in the right place at the right time.
An error, even as tiny as a worker misplacing an item, can hinder the overall process flow inside a warehouse. This leads to unexpected delays and financial losses. With huge volumes of racks for object allocation and an inward and outward flow of a diversity of products with different priorities, things can easily go out of hand without proper warehouse management. Cranes, forklifts and other material handling systems aid workers in the picking of products. But those which demand specific handling procedures could still be a pain in the neck.
What Is Warehouse Management Automation?
Warehouse management automation is the technique of making the daily activities inside the warehouse run automatically. It helps in automating manual tasks, thereby allowing the workers to divert their attention to other pending tasks. The scope of warehouse automation covers anything from the steadfast management of inventory to the final dispersion of goods to customers.
Apart from solving for unskilled labour, warehouse management automation also relieves owners of high operating costs. In general, warehouse automation contributes to better utilization of resources, reduction in labour-intensive tasks, refined work environment, expedition of process flow, improved customer satisfaction and better productivity.
Challenges in Warehouse Management
There are a lot of factors to take into consideration while automating the workflow. An in-depth analysis of warehouse routines might reveal challenges that don’t meet the eye. Given below are some of the confrontations that stakeholders need to cope up with.
Inventories constitute the soul of a warehouse. Commodities, both inbound and outbound, need to be logged and checked against customer orders. Some items require to be dispatched directly to customers with minimal storage time through a cross-docking mechanism. This calls for the immediate availability of transport vehicles, off-duty sorting equipment and an unoccupied distribution docking terminal.
The idea that warehouses are just storage buildings stems from a misconception that objects are simply allocated to available space. Items need to be put away in the right slots according to their priority. Frequently moving items should be near to the front, and items normally shipped together demand neighbouring slots.
The allocation should also be orchestrated such that there is minimum internal movement and time delay. Excessive stock and space availability issues, if not attended to, can degrade product quality and increase work accidents. All of this turns the warehouse into a liability. Needless to say, this entails a systematic and proactive management of materials and space.
Handling and displacement of items comprise yet another discipline in a warehouse. Adequate picking equipment and ad-hoc material handling devices should always be at the disposal. Items ranked higher in priority must be picked first, and errors in picking should ideally be non-existent. Least distant routes are always considered first. Nevertheless, inadequately organized picking routes can also lead to redundancy, traffic and time wastage.
Packing and shipping
Preparation of objects for dispatch necessitates sturdy packaging equipment and methods. Advanced shipping notices and transport scheduling can assist in a hurdle-free flow of goods. Administration of the process is essential to make sure that the right objects are available for shipping at the docking terminals. The packed materials should also include an accurate list of contents and delivery manifest.
The workforce is the highest cost for a warehouse. Ensuring their health and safety are of principal priority. Formulation of a flexible work plan and establishing coordination between workers at all times can prove to be pivotal in the smooth operation of a warehouse. Furthermore, equipping the workers with necessary skills and proper guidance at every turn and junction in a process flow becomes essential in increasing productivity and reducing accidents.
Why do we need Warehouse Automation?
With warehouse automation, the element of error is significantly reduced. The automated scheme lessens, if not eliminate human intervention. Employing virtually relentless machinery to pick, sort and put away items over workers who can work only for a limited amount of time has its own self-evident advantages. But what is even more astounding is that automation does this overtime work with stunning accuracy and efficiency. This an idea that would be impossible to imagine with humans.
A warehouse automation system might not always require replacement for physical machinery. In fact, most warehouses only need to automate manual tasks like scheduling work, planning work orders and receipts, issuing shipping notices or organizing transportation at docking terminals. However, warehouses where digital and physical automation plays out hand in hand achieve better productivity and time management.
How does it work?
Automation in a warehouse begins with a sound Warehouse Management System or WMS. WMS is a software that breaks down the complexity of ongoing activities and facilitates a centralised vision of process flow. It is extremely necessary to run the daily routines inside a warehouse in a coherent and consistent manner.
From the arrival of a product to when it finally leaves, WMS controls and administers each and every step the product undergoes inside the warehouse. Softwares like warehouse control systems or inventory management systems are integrated with WMS for an effective management of workflow. Different kinds of warehouse automation technologies, depending on the requirements, are incorporated under WMS to run things seamlessly.
But it’s all easier said than done. It takes months, if not years and a collaboration of personnel from different technical frontiers to reach a working model. Moreover, periodic deliberations between groups are necessary to ensure an almost error-free and safe work environment.
Types of Warehouse Automation Technology
In order to deploy precise solutions, it is vital that the stakeholders identify the key problems that they face in the warehouse. Following are some of the solutions applied to these challenges that have been proven to work.
GTP or Goods to Person system is the most common and conventional technology made use of in a warehouse. GTP resorts to conveyors, vertical lift systems and carousels to bring items to workers. It improves the speed and efficiency of material flow by providing extra time to workers. They can then utilize this time to prepare necessary tools and devices for assembly and packing.
Automatic Identification and Data Capture (AIDC) is one of the technologies that WMS implements to track and locate items anywhere in the warehouse. Components like RFID and barcode systems aid in making each item unique by assigning them distinctive serial numbers. These numbers act as pointers to stored data, specific to items, in cloud database platforms.
Automatic storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are systems that access the data stored in the database to help identify the object. When paired with picking devices, this enables the implementation of the right techniques depending upon the nature of the object. AS/RS systems thrive in a warehouse where there are space constraints and efficient space utilization is a must. Sortation systems also hire AS/RS to identify and send items to specific areas of the warehouse.
Pick to Light and Voice picking solutions are GTP systems that use digital light displays and speech recognition respectively. They communicate the whereabouts of objects to workers. Voice picking dominates over pick to light systems as it quashes the need for handheld RF scanning devices. This permits workers to concentrate more on their tasks.
Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR), by utilizing the Internet of things and AS/RS, create a digital environment, allowing them to navigate the workspace. Onboard tracking tools, sensors and GPS systems cooperate, within and without, to locate items and reach them through the most effective route there is.
When and how to automate a Warehouse
It doesn’t require deep insight to realize that modern warehouses that do not apply any kind of automation will not last a day in business terms. Mounting errors, labour-intensive tasks, redundancy, delayed order fulfilment and an unsatisfied customer are hints that your warehouse needs automation. Owners need to constantly ask questions on existing practices. They should be vigilant enough to identify potential threats to the well-being of the warehouse.
Data collection and inventory control are critical steps to identifying the gaps. It also helps to pinpoint the causes of substandard performance. Generally, a committee with stakeholders and third-party experts is formed and tasked with the same. Depending on the nature and intensity of the problem faced, they need to decide the right kind of technology to be implemented.
We are living in an era where the fourth industrial revolution is just years away. Automation in the context of a warehouse is not just a plausible solution but also a necessary one. While improved productivity and reduced accidents are certainly trump cards, upfront costs and onboarding ease of automation are some of the things to look out for. Software like easyTRACK warehouse management from Technowave offer flexibility, easy integration and cost-effectiveness. In essence, automation definitely makes your warehouse more competent. But it is also important that you select the right automation technology available.