How Automated Material Handling Systems Impact Warehouse Facility Design

Increasingly, warehouse managers are seeking to expand warehouse automation to maximize efficiency. This often encompasses various types of material handling and includes everything from automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) to automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS).

The primary purpose of an automated system is to reduce or eliminate the involvement of humans in material handling processes, especially those that require repetitive tasks.

Automation has been the trend in mass production for decades. Using various automation types, warehouse operators can reduce labor expenditure on unnecessary tasks, assigning personnel to other projects.

However, the process of automating a warehousing facility poses several challenges from a design and building optimization perspective. You should understand what information you need to collect during the design and planning phase so you can select the most effective material handling equipment for your facility.

Warehouse Automation

There are various automation levels and automated technologies that warehouse managers can use to improve productivity, inventory allocation, and efficient use of storage space. These technologies vary considerably in cost of installation and sophistication.

However, the benefits of implementing automation technologies are substantial and include reducing or eliminating labor costs, reducing turnaround time, increasing precision, and decreasing the incidence of workplace injury.

Digital Automation

An example of digital warehouse automation is automatic identification and data capture (AIDC) technology, which encompasses several different methods for identifying materials and products, tracking or recording information regarding them, and entering that information into a database.

These technologies are useful for inventory management and reducing the costs associated with worker error. Examples of AIDC technologies include mobile barcoding in whole or in part radio frequency identification (RFID) and QR codes.

The initial cost associated with digital automation is often high and includes software, hardware, and training costs. It’s important not to forget that last point. Warehouse managers may not realize that training is a cost to address because it doesn’t have a defined monetary value.

Unless you intend to automate your warehouse fully, you’ll need your employees to be capable of operating and maintaining automated technologies. Safety is also a focus of training that employers shouldn’t ignore.

Mechanical or Physical Automation

Mechanical or physical automation is designed to improve productivity and reduce the probability of human error or injury by substituting automated hardware systems.

These systems minimize the extent to which manual labor is necessary to accomplish a goal, whether that goal is storing the inventory or retrieving it. This is one of the more expensive automated systems to implement in a warehouse or factory.

Material Handling

According to MHI, material handling is the “movement, protection, storage and control of materials and products throughout manufacturing, warehousing, distribution, consumption, and disposal.”

Material handling plays an essential role in the industry and requires various technologies to facilitate: automated, semi-automated, and manual.

In addition to increased worker productivity, one of the principal advantages of automated or semi-automated material handling is that it improves workplace or employee morale.

Not only do automated material handling technologies enable workers to complete work assignments faster with fewer errors, but they also lower the risk of injury. Workplace injuries account for a significant amount of lost or restricted work time.

Warehouse Design and Automation

If you’re contemplating automating your warehousing facility, in whole or in part, you’ll need to evaluate your premises thoroughly. Everything from flooring, power requirements, safety protocols, and personnel training are necessary points of consideration. You should also assess the environmental impact that may result from the purchase and installation of new equipment.

Automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) are an example of automated material handling technology. AGVs are computer-controlled robots that perform several services, including the transportation of heavy loads and raw materials inside the warehouse. Variants include unit load AGVs for transporting pallets and automated forklift AGVs.

When selecting AGVs, the warehousing design considerations include the flatness and level of the floor, the energy requirements of the AGV, and how much weight the floor can support.

Conveyor/Sorting Systems

When you think of automation, conveyor systems probably come to mind. These systems are used extensively in warehouses and factory assembly lines to transport materials and products from one part of the facility to another. They also play a vital role in an inspection. Conveyors can be supported by the floor, from the ceiling, or used in conjunction with mezzanines. This technology is highly versatile.

Industrial conveyor belts are optimized for a particular product’s weight and dimensions. If you need a custom conveyor solution, provide the manufacturer with as much information as you can regarding the inventory that the conveyor system will transport.

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)

As the warehouse system automation increased over the years, the costs of more sophisticated automated storage and retrieval systems have declined. The result is that these technologies have become more affordable to less well-established warehousing operations.

AS/RS, as a category, covers a wide range of different technologies designed to store and retrieve inventory, either on-demand or in accordance with a warehouse management system’s guidelines. These include carousels, shuttles, vertical lift modules (VLM), unit-load, mini-load, and micro-load.

An AS/RS is optimal under those circumstances where no value-added processing is required, high storage density is essential to maximize available space, and more accurate order picking.

Shuttles transport goods for order fulfillment and a set of tracks attached to a racking system, retrieving and loading inventory. Mini-load AS/RS uses high-speed, precision cranes to optimize storage density and vertical space, responding to real-time demands.

Regardless of the type, the purpose of these systems is to maximize efficiency.

Implementing Automated Systems

The process of implementing an automation strategy can be time-consuming and expensive. You must involve all members of management in this endeavor. Consider forming a panel of employees, managers, etc., who are well versed in the warehouse’s internal operations. They should understand the warehouse’s performance, where it could use improvement, and its current capabilities and shortfalls. If necessary, hire outside consultants.

Next, gather data. Information regarding your business’s current operations and how automation can improve them is critical to the financial success of automating your warehouse.

Part of collecting data is understanding how to gauge the efficiency gains of productivity — that means metrics or key performance indicators. 

A warehouse management system (WMS) can help you organize and track inventory, determine appropriate retrieval and storage locations, interface with other automated technologies, and play a vital role in inspection procedures. 

Finally, you should consider exactly what you need automation for — what is your ultimate goal? Do you want to automate the administrative side of your business or expand the warehouse’s footprint and incorporate more advanced mechanical equipment, such as robotic systems?

The type of automation you need will also determine how you should adapt the warehouse, if necessary, to accommodate the automated systems. Sometimes the implementation of these technologies requires renovation or remodeling. As a result, automation has serious implications for budgetary planning. That’s why it’s essential to be aware of the costs. For example, to use AGVs correctly, you may need to have the floor resurfaced to ensure it is flat and completely level.

Automating Your Warehouse Operations

At Shelving + Rack Systems, Inc., our passion is helping clients run their warehouses and distribution centers as efficiently as possible. Sometimes, depending on your budget, that means automation. If you’d like us to guide you through the process of automating your warehousing operations, give us a call at (800) 589-7225.