Rapid changes happening across different industries
We are witnessing various rapid changes across different industries like manufacturing, healthcare, retail, consumer goods, logistics & transportation. Firstly, with double-digit growth in e-Commerce and changing consumer expectations like speed of delivery, order accuracy, transparency & reduced or no shipping cost have changed the business models to provide seamless experience across different channels during order placement and last mile delivery during order delivery. Secondly, rise of regulatory requirements are on rise in healthcare industry and provide inventory visibility across supply chain along with lot numbers as it helps in case of recall to track and trace. Thirdly, supply chain industry is facing labor shortages or pressure to reduce supply chain costs across industries has compelled to adopt rapid changing technologies like advanced robotics, autonomous vehicles, big data, IoT etc. Lastly, to overcome these changes logistics and transportation industry (3PL, Courier Express Parcel (CEP), Truck Load, Freight Forwarder players) is been leveraged by different industries. Thus, logistics players are under continuous pressure to reduce supply chain costs, increase operations efficiency and at the same time maintain the service quality.
In consideration to all the above trends or changes, organizations across different industries are looking for answers to handle volume surge, speed, transparency, adopt technology and manage labor shortages. Is automation within the warehouse is one of the answers to stay relevant and have competitive advantage? Does automation help to increase throughput or increase order accuracy through use of automation technologies? Does automation help reduce the impact of labor shortage?
Automation upscale – unlocking value across warehouse operations
Understanding of automation evolution along with its solutions/systems and applicability across warehouse operations will help in answering above questions.
Manufacturing has witnessed automation & robotics in their industrial operations to reduce human intervention, increase efficiency, streamline assembly line for more than 5 decades now. In last few years, within warehouse we are witnessing increase of automation using high speed conveyors, automated storage and retrieval systems, automated guided vehicles (goods-to-person concept) etc. This is not being restricted to giant retailers or e-commerce players but other industry players like logistics and transportation or healthcare are also increasing their spent on implementing automation in their warehouses. As per MHI Industry survey report of 2016, robotics and automation adoption rate will increase to 74% from 35% in next 6-10 years and the International Federation of Robots predicts a 15-percent annual growth rate for robotics implementation globally. The key drivers for increase in adoption rate or demand is mainly to handle volume surge, increase throughput, need for order accuracy, mitigate labor shortage, build intelligent warehouse, minimize real state and above all cost of automation has come down.
As the technology continues to advance, warehouse automation solutions like sortation systems, AGV’s, automated lift truck, put/pick-to-light etc. are been enhanced or built to provide intelligent automation with scalability and flexibility. There are specific automation solutions which are developed for specific function in the warehousing value chain.
Automated Lift Truck (ALT)
Lift trucks or forklifts are the critical part of the warehousing operations. With technology advancements and increase of automation within warehouse has led to ALT. They are guided through head cameras and traverse through preplanned routes. They are different from AGVs and are simple, less time taking and less costly to implement.
Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV)
AGVs are autonomous vehicles which use goods-to-person (GTP) concept for automated inventory storage and order picking in warehousing. They provide order accuracy & high throughput and are perfect fit for e-Commerce, 3rd Party logistics, healthcare and apparel type of warehouses. They work on magnetic tape and can run in lights-out facilities. It is very easy to scale up or down by adding or removing vehicle (s) from the grid. AGVs help in increasing the picking speed by 50% and reducing the inventory storage footprint up to 60%.
Currently AGVs have some limitations from the size of the mobile storage unit and payload it can carry. In future AGVs can be enhanced to carry payload of up to 3500 pounds and box of size 48X48 sq. inches.
Automated Storage & Retrieval System (ASRS)
ASRS also uses GTP concept and involves rail guided cranes that can travel along aisles for storage and retrieval of inventory. They are also equipped with lifts to move inventory to higher levels. For Garments on Hangers (GOH) there are garment handling conveyor used for storage and retrieval. Warehouses using ASRS, uses ~40-45% less space compare to traditional warehouses, to accommodate same number of items.
Order Fulfillment System
Order fulfillment system guides operators for discrete order picking, batch order picking or case picking. Order fulfillment system uses either fulfillment automation using AGV, ASRS and ALT systems (discussed above) or paperless picking technology like put/pick-to-light (PTL) or voice picking. PTL system uses light displays to direct user to inventory locations for put/pick. Each location also has display to show quantity to be put/picked to/from location along with acknowledgement button.PTL systems can be also used for zone picks. In a zone picking, users are assigned to an area and they will pick inventory as per displayed light and place it into the tote or box which is rolled out on conveyor. In PTL, GTP concept is confluence with visual displays identification of location, item and quantity for high picking speed & low error rates.
Conveyor systems are most economical and efficient way to move goods in a facility without the use of manual labor. Conveyors can be used for receiving, unloading, long distance movement, routing for packing and shipping etc. There are various types of conveyor systems like sortation (linear, cross belt, tilt tray etc.), pallet, transportation and accumulation conveyors.
Packaging automation includes cartonization, bagging, packing list insertion, print/apply label etc. This system ensures the right item gets to the right person in the right manner with consistency across each package.
With all the rapid changes and solutions in automation, it has become one of the most critical factor in warehousing to move ahead of competition. As we move ahead in the game of automation, it is important to build intelligent automation which is scalable& flexible. Use automation and robotics specialist’s experience and expertise to identify the area of automation and determine ROI. The automation specialist(s) should re-imagine and leverage cutting edge technologies to solve challenges by simplifying complexities in the warehouse. During identification and ROI determination some of the key factors need to be considered are handling of volume surge, increasing throughput, improving productivity, filling labor shortage gaps etc. The key here would be to scope the requirements, start small, enhance and improve from there.