Benefits of Warehouse Automation Technology for Your Business
Benefits of Warehouse Automation Technology for Your Business
Automation and data-driven operations are the basis of warehouse efficiency today. Increasing demand, booming eCommerce and stringent competition make nearly every storage, logistics and retail company consider integrating warehouse automation technology. The strategies they choose, however, vary greatly depending on scale and budget.
In this article, we will outline the major goals of innovating warehouse operations with different automation technologies. We will go through the key benefits stakeholders bet on when starting modernization and figure out how to kick off a warehouse automation project tailored to specific business needs.
The idea of warehouse automation goes far beyond the use of robotic arms and RFID tags. Warehouse automation systems development and technologies provide ample opportunities to executives and managers in this sector — address different business needs, help companies solve unique problems and shape their competitive edge.
Warehouse management solutions
Warehouse management software is a diverse category of tools that are seamlessly integrated into warehouse operations. They provide managers with better visibility, control and, ultimately, allow them to fully automate supply chain processes from order to distribution and shipping.
We are talking about systems of different scales. Warehouse management systems (WMS) are common tools that help managers plan and automate daily routines across the warehouse, keep and locate inventory, manage staff operations and create unique workflows. Automated warehouse management system is an essential back-office toolset for organizations of various sizes.
Warehouse Control System (WCS) is mainly focused on on-floor material handling operations. It connects people, machines and goods and enables efficient distribution and order fulfillment. Warehouse Execution System (WES) is a bigger solution that can either be integrated with existing WMS and WCS or has relevant functionality for all-in-one warehouse automation. These are truly smart systems that rely on real-time data to automatically adjust operations planning and execution depending on priorities, workload, resources and capacity.
Robots, drones and autonomous vehicles
Robots, controlled and autonomous vehicles are the main instruments for physical process automation in warehouse and distribution centers. These technologies are used to either augment human efforts or replace people and take over all the mundane, repetitive or dangerous work.
Similar to warehouse management solutions, robots and vehicles are used in various operations. There are robots for picking and sorting, smart carts and forklifts for moving goods across facilities, drones for conducting inventory and delivery.
All of them require different levels of autonomy and mobility. For instance, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) are preprogrammed to move along certain routes, have limited navigation capabilities and require navigational software. On the contrary, functional Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) can navigate on the premises using sensors and maps and plan their routes depending on the job. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, or AS/RS, operate not only on the floor but also in 3D — pick up goods from bottom to top shelves, crawl up the storage racks.
If you need a good example, think of the popular videos from an Amazon warehouse before Black Friday or
Many of these robots wouldn’t be able to perform or reach a high level of autonomy if not for different AI technologies that power their decision-making, sensing, understanding and learning.
For example, mobile robots, smart vehicles and drones largely rely on their ability to locate themselves and objects in the environment for navigation. Using computer vision and optical systems, sensor data analytics and deep learning they choose the best course of action depending on the tasks.
AI-based advanced warehouse automation technology is equally helpful in warehouse automation systems operated by humans. For instance, voice-directed work such as voice picking, inventory and audits are powered by voice recognition technology which allows a system to learn the operator’s voice during quick training and provide 99% accuracy during fast and efficient voice-data input.
Efficiency and customer satisfaction
One of the main reasons why large retailers and logistics companies invest in automated warehouse system development is to increase operational efficiency and better address growing customer demands. Smart warehouse today has much higher throughout, is immediately restocked and resupplied and allows for such services as same-day delivery.
It may seem backward, but automation technology provides multiple benefits for warehouse employees. Instead of taking over people’s jobs, mobile robots and drones, for instance, help cut down on on-site commute time and do all the mundane work. It allows to better manage and employ human skills in warehouse operations.
As a result, warehouse employees are getting engaged in more intellectual work, more satisfied with their jobs and motivated to further improve their skills.
Increased safety for people and product alone is enough to consider warehouse automation technology development. Warehouse operations are often associated with a range of high-risk activities such as handling heavy pallets and high racks, operating in high-traffic environment and, sometimes, working with toxic products (e.g. chemicals). Today’s robots can do most of these jobs thus eliminating risks for employees.
There are many different solutions for automated inventory. Some of them are standalone systems such as mobile applications and fleets of drones equipped with barcode readers. Others are part of bigger warehouse management systems. Either way, the primary goal of inventory automation is better precision and control over storage and product.
Huge warehouse modernization projects are expensive but they are often paid off fast. The reason for impressively fast ROI is multiple new saving points provided by automation — reduced labor cost, higher performance, optimized handling and storage cost, minimized inventory errors, eliminated risks of mishandling and product loss, etc.
Best thing about warehouse automation technology is that you can easily scale it up and down and quickly respond to change in consumer demand. For instance, retail brands don’t need to hectically double their personnel for the holiday season and deal with temporary employment. Instead, they can tweak schedules and reprogram their fleets to manage higher input and output, while employees can focus on more customer-centric activities such as customer service, holiday packaging, etc.
Highly automated warehouses had an edge when the pandemic came because they were by default more resilient to unexpected changes. Long-term spike in demand for consumer products, new safety, sanitation and social distancing measures hit hard on fully human-operated warehouses. On the contrary, the companies who could engage their fleets of warehouse vehicles and robots and control all the inventory and operations on one dashboard were better prepared.
Sustainability is on the agenda of nearly any business, retail and logistics are not an exception. Warehouse management solutions and other automation technologies help executives get closer to their environmental goals by providing better control over warehouse conditions and energy efficiency, optimize the use of space and inbuild basic green practices such as recycling into operations.
Using IoT data and AI technologies for condition monitoring and predictive maintenance, managers optimize the use of machinery, prevent downtime and make sure warehouse infrastructure works as it should.
Digital technologies unleash many new opportunities. Perhaps the most obvious benefit of warehouse automation is the ability to keep round-the-clock consistent work performed by fleets of robots and drones.
There’s more. Using the data collected by different systems on-site (traffic, fleet tracking, space usage, etc.) and advanced analytics tools, warehouse managers can better understand how to adjust processes, optimize warehouse layout and workflows to maximize performance.
Every warehouse has its process and requirements. It is essential to study these specifics and focus on business value before kicking off any automation or other digital project.
Here are 5 strategic steps and techniques that help better understand how to build an automated warehouse system in consideration of your business needs.
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Start with Discovery
Discovery is a fail-proof strategy for starting a new digital project. This is a research and analysis stage that helps you understand what exactly you expect to get, how your system will be built and delivered and how it will impact your operations once it’s up and running. As a rule, Discovery includes requirements gathering, competition and market research, project roadmap and, in some cases, prototyping and design.
Explore existing solutions and practices
There are many industry-specific SaaS platforms, tools and devices that can either fully cover your needs or steer a low-cost low-risk path for your automation project. For instance, major warehouse management platforms are modular, which means you can build up your own set of features depending on your goals.
However, if you are looking for something more bespoke or want to reuse the systems or databases you already exploit, you may consider integrations via APIs and SDKs.
Understanding constraints — technical limitations, physical space, deadlines, local regulations, budget caps, competence gap — is important to minimize risks and keep the project roadmap adequate and implementable. When you start a warehouse automation project, make sure your vendors and solution providers are fully aware of possible project constraints.
Consider your data and scalability
As we have already mentioned, modern warehouse technologies such as a fleet management system or WES are easily scalable whether you need to expand to several more facilities or even new geographies. Scalability and the volume of data you expect to work with, however, should be taken into consideration before you start your automation project. It will impact the tech stack, integrations and overall architecture of your system.
Expand tech competence
How to create a warehouse automation technology with limited or no tech competence in-house? You can either augment your tech team with experienced software engineers or hand over the whole project to a dedicated development team. Contact your software provider to consult which model will fit your project requirements and ensure the best speed to market.
For more than a decade in digital product design and development, we had a chance to work with leading retail and wholesale brands, developed digital systems for logistics, eCommerce and publishing companies and automated processes across production sites and warehouses.
One of our long-standing clients, Printique, uses custom data analytics and visualization software we have built to automate order-to-delivery monitoring and management on their production site.
Several years ago, we have designed and developed a B2E mobile and web application integrated with industry-grade scanners for effective warehouse inventory management, job scheduling and reporting.
If you are looking for a tech team to help you implement your warehouse automation project, drop us a line. We offer end-to-end software design and engineering services and have a broad skillset and portfolio across web, mobile, IoT and big data solution development.
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