In any warehousing business, you need to remain competitive. One of the strategies that warehouses are continuously embracing is automation. Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) can eliminate human error and improve productivity significantly. In addition, automation increases worker safety, reducing the incidence of workplace accidents.
Other types of warehouse automation, less sophisticated than AS/RS, are also available, ensuring that you’ll boost performance, regardless of your budget.
Warehousing facilities are critical to the supply chain and worldwide logistics. Automation can help you more effectively navigate different processing rates during order fulfillment, efficiently manage available space, and improve workflow considerably.
AR/RS technology has existed for decades. While AR/RS used to be prohibitively expensive, advances in technology have reduced the cost significantly. Now you can scale this technology to suit your facility’s unique requirements and layout.
Warehouse Management System(WMS)
As part of automating your warehouse, whether in whole or in part, you should consider using a warehouse management system if you’re not already. These systems allow you to track and log inventory data, often using radio frequency identification (RFID) tags and barcode scanners.
While this type of automation technology is primarily digital, warehouse operators often use it in conjunction with physical automation technologies. Physical automation includes anything robotic or remote-controlled that performs necessary material-handling tasks, improving worker productivity, or replacing humans entirely during the order fulfillment process.
When you’re deciding whether to automate your warehousing operation, you should consider various important factors, such as whether an automated system is compatible with the budgetary constraints of your business.
In addition, unless an automated system reduces labor costs, maintains flexibility, and saves valuable floor space compared with non-automated shelving and rack systems, it may not be an appropriate investment.
These are not universally applicable. In smaller warehouses, human order pickers, whether on foot or with motorized assistance, can perform necessary material-handling tasks at different rates, according to changing business conditions. If demand falls, you don’t want to be limited to an automated system with preset functionality.
You should conduct a detailed evaluation of your business model, workforce volatility and turnover rate, and productivity. Enlist a team of qualified experts, comprising stakeholders in the business from every level of management, to assess the suitability of automation.
If you don’t have managers or internal stakeholders who can offer guidance or expertise regarding the viability or appropriateness of automation, consider hiring outside consultants to evaluate these factors.
You and other managers should also assemble a team who will be responsible for implementing physical and digital automation technology, assuming you have arrived at a decision.
This team should account for everything, from the physical layout that characterizes your warehouse to the expected return on investment (ROI) and long-term maintenance and repair costs.
Automation can improve productivity and render your business more competitive, but you must conduct due diligence before implementing such a system. The inappropriate or improper implementation of automated designs for shelving and racking can be costly.
Evaluating Your Warehouse
Evaluating your warehousing facility requires a multi-faceted assessment beginning with everything from the square footage, clear height — the usable height from the floor to the lowest-hanging object — and unused space, such as offices, to factors related to personnel.
The warehouse layout, including the location of docking stations, the kinds of material-handling equipment that you use now, even the straightness and evenness of the flooring, can determine what types of automated or semi-automated systems you can, or should, install. An automation expert or consultant can help determine what needs to be assessed.
Don’t neglect the planning phase. The capital investment associated with some automated systems is in the millions, so if you determine that you don’t need it, you can use that capital for other purposes, such as training and improving your employee retention rate.
Non-Automated Storage Systems
Warehouse operators have traditionally used non-automated racks and shelving units, relying on human order pickers. These storage racks, ranging from racks for pallet storage to cantilever racking, are typically made from industrial steel. Workers performing tasks on foot or using a forklift are a vital part of warehousing operations.
However, some degree of automation is becoming increasingly necessary to improve efficiency and lower the incidence of workplace injuries. Order picking often involves repetitive tasks, heavy, cumbersome objects, and industrial equipment.
While training your personnel to adhere to safety protocols is essential, it’s not always enough. Minimizing risk should be your goal.
An automated storage and retrieval system can be immensely beneficial to any warehousing operation when designed and implemented correctly.
The simplest type of automated system for a warehouse distribution center is a conveyor system. Conveyors fall into two broad categories: inertia driven and powered. In the former, the conveyor uses the force of gravity to transport goods to trucks. The latter, however, increases the versatility of your system considerably.
If you want to improve the productivity of your warehouse and reduce forklift traffic, a conveyor system can help you achieve these goals.
Some warehouse managers regarding conveyor systems are prohibitively expensive; however, you can install sections of gravity-driven conveyors as a cost-effective alternative for speeding up transportation.
Pallet Shuttle System
A pallet shuttle system consists of a pallet rack frame and rails on which powered shuttles move to transport merchandise. This system allows you to maximize storage density, vertically and horizontally, by reducing the aisle space necessary that would normally be necessary for forklift operators. Instead, the forklift operator can perform material-handling tasks from one point. The pallet shuttles take care of the loading and unloading part.
These systems also use a series of sensors and readers to track and log information regarding inventory. Pallet shuttle systems are usually semi-automatic, meaning that a human operator is still required but can control it remotely.
The pick module is an integrated storage and distribution system designed to increase workflow efficiency and reduce the pick error rate. If you manage a massive warehousing facility, a pick module is a highly productive system.
Using pallet loads, the pick module can use a combination of gravity and powered systems to continuously break the load down, distributing components to different picking stations.
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems
AS/RS can significantly improve efficiency compared to legacy systems. A high-volume/high-density storage system, AS/RS also provides real-time order tracking, so you don’t have to conduct manual inspections. If you need to reduce labor costs, your operation involves highly repetitive tasks that a machine can perform, or you want to more efficiently use your available floor space, AS/RS can help.
These systems fall into several categories. Some examples of physical automation technology include the following:
Rather than taking advantage of vertical space, the horizontal carousel uses the available floor space. A horizontal carousel uses an oval track, similar to a merry-go-round, to rotate a series of bins, often integrated with an inventory management system. The vertical carousel system operates similarly to a Ferris wheel.
Vertical lift module
A vertical lift module (VLM) stores inventory in two vertical enclosed columns, using an extractor to retrieve requested items from trays and move them to an appropriate access point. A VLM is designed to store inventory vertically, taking advantage of available clear height/overhead space.
VLM can be advantageous when horizontal space is at a premium and expansion is not feasible. It also improves security, as the inventory is fully enclosed and, thus, protected from theft.
Fixed- and movable-aisle systems
Using pallet racks with minimal aisle space between them, fixed- and movable-aisle AS/RS uses a crane that moves vertically and horizontally to store and retrieve inventory.
A micro-load stocker allows you to load and retrieve single cartons or totes using a high-density, enclosed system. The stocker uses an extractor to deliver items to the worker via a single pick face or access point.
When you’re trying to determine the best storage systems for your warehouse, Shelving + Rack Systems, Inc. can help. We specialize in storage solutions, both automated and traditional, for any warehouse, factory, or other industrial facility. Call us at (800) 589-7225, and we’ll help you build a plan for automating your storage requirements.