Table of contents:
- What is warehouse automation?
- Types of warehouse automation
- How to use warehouse management systems
- The benefits of automating your warehouse workflows
- Picking the right CRM for warehouse workflows automation
- How much does it cost to automate a warehouse?
- How Automaly’s Workflow Automation Consultants Can Help
- Get started with your automated warehouse
With businesses now more than ever open to adopting innovative technologies that simplify their internal processes, warehouse automation has become highly sought after.
Retailers’ attention is predicted to grow warehouse automation to a $51 billion industry by 2030. In a recent McKinsey survey of 50 retailers across apparel, grocery, and other key sectors, more than 80 per cent of respondents indicated they intend to increase automation investments over the next two to three years. Companies are leaning toward innovative solutions for automated warehouses to solve age-old problems associated with handling inventory, like labour shortages, SKU-complexity growth, and minimising costs.
But what are automated warehouses? What does warehouse automation do for my business, what does it involve, and most importantly, what are the benefits? These are the most frequently asked questions regarding warehouse automation.
To answer these burning questions and more, we have compiled a comprehensive guide to warehouse automation. This guide will not only demystify the technology behind warehouse automation but also give you a clear road map on using warehouse management solutions for your business. We will also cover critical areas like costs and how to choose a technology provider.
What is warehouse automation?
Imagine a typical day in the warehouse. Several tasks rely on micro-actions from warehouse workers. The tasks at hand include moving inventory and materials around, keeping track of where items must go next, and collaborating between workers in different workstations to get things done. Tedious, isn’t it?
Warehouse automation uses technology to simplify and synchronise tasks that would otherwise reduce worker productivity. Automated warehouses are more efficient as human effort is augmented by software, robots, and machines to increase speed, accuracy, costs, and safety within the workplace. In some cases, AI has enabled businesses to rely on autonomous robots which can operate without human interference.
From when inventory arrives at your warehouse to when it leaves, it is continuously going through different processes handled by workers. With warehouse automation, these internal processes can be reimagined with manual and repetitive tasks, minimised to allow employees to complete more in less time.
A common misconception is that warehouse automation solutions are there to replace human labour. That is not true. Automating does not mean that robots will “steal” jobs from humans. Rather it enables businesses and the workers, by extension, to leverage the perks of new warehouse automation technologies to improve their speed, accuracy, and productivity. Side by side, these two things will improve conditions in the warehouse.
Types of warehouse automation
Warehouse automation can take different forms depending on what a business needs. Here is a look at the various types of warehouse automation available, from receiving inventory deliveries to fulfilling orders:
Goods-to-person technologies (GTP)
GTP solutions include warehouse automation technology that moves inventory and materials from workstation A to workstation B. For example, moving packaging materials from storage to the workstation where the person in charge of packing orders is. GTP is mainly made up of the following:
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS)
These include cranes, vehicles and carousels used to transport items around the warehouse. AS/RS solutions are typically used to move transport items to and from storage. They are the most commonly known type of warehouse automation.
These are used to transport materials along assembly lines or around the warehouse. This can be moving inventory to where it is packed or sorted for shipping. Conveyors have been around for a long time and are one of the oldest types of warehouse automation today.
These are systems used to locate items in the warehouse faster. Pick-to-light technology uses LED lights and barcodes to indicate where items are so they can be brought out of storage to fulfil orders. Employees can, therefore spend less time walking around in search of a particular item. Knowing exactly where to look improves productivity.
Voice picking and voice tasking
These communication systems coordinate work between warehouse taskers and employees who pick up items to fulfil orders. Voice tasking makes it easier for warehouse order pickers to get information and give feedback as they work.
These are technologies used to identify, separate and direct items to designated locations. Sortation systems can be utilised to send items in the warehouse for returns processing to packing stations and pickup zones. This approach improves accuracy and helps speed things up.
Collaborative mobile robots
These are robots used to augment human-led warehouse-picking efforts. Collaborative mobile robots guide workers through picking, improving accuracy and productivity. Warehouse pickers can rely on the robots’ flexibility and scalability to plot and execute more reliable picking routes according to immediate priorities.
Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)
These robots are equipped to do the same tasks as collaborative robots. However, they are autonomous. This is to say, they are programmed to carry out tasks without human interference.
The application of drones in warehouse automation is limitless. Warehouse drones are typically robots that provide basic functions for inventory management. They are fitted with barcode scanners for tasks like inventory counts, ensuring correct storage placement for items, and, in some cases, deliveries. If you can leverage sales reports from your CRM, drones can be used to determine which items need restocking.
Warehouse management systems
This refers to warehouse management automation software with CRM capabilities to synchronise your workflows. You can leverage such systems to limit the human aspect in menial tasks like inventory or shipping management. For example, you can streamline warehouse picking to orders received, prioritise different picking waves and communicate delivery schedules with the packing station with an automated workflow.
How to use warehouse management systems
With the aid of workflow automation software, warehouse management systems make it easy to track and sync warehouse activities to other business processes, e.g., procurement and order fulfilment. Let’s explore how these systems function to help things run smoothly.
How does warehouse management automation work?
Warehouse tasks are generally repetitive, and – when done manually – it’s easy to make mistakes. Take, for example, you have hundreds of orders that need to be fulfilled by your picking team. Without real-time feedback on what to prioritise and who is picking what, workers could duplicate some orders. That is how your customer ends up with the wrong items on their doorstep. The possibility of a human making a mistake is significant without digital automation.
Automated warehouses reduce the probability of this happening by leveraging tech for boring, tedious tasks and those requiring a higher degree of accuracy. This leaves the warehouse employees with more time to do other complex tasks. However, with AI and CRM solutions becoming increasingly advanced, workflow automation software is also improving at tasks that could previously only be done through human input.
Managing inventory is at the top of the list when optimising your warehouse.
- You want to know what’s there, the quantity, and where it is located. As items are constantly being shipped in and out of the warehouse, physical inspection will take up much of your time. But install workflow automation, and you can have other physical automation tools programmed to check inventory levels at the end of each day, among other tasks. Your warehouse management system can provide you with accurate reports on the day-to-day activities, and you can focus on other tasks.
- The ease of directing picking, packing and shipping activities using a warehouse automation system is impressive. Different teams are responsible for each of these activities within your warehouse stations. Automating your workflow means you can say goodbye to time-consuming meetings to ensure everyone is on the same page. Everyone can easily verify their given tasks, receive communication on changes in priority and escalate issues.
- Supervisors will also have a better time monitoring and controlling activities to meet specific targets with digital automation. Take, for instance, the person in charge of AS/AR systems in the warehouse. You can’t have multiple vehicles retrieving inventory from the same section of the warehouse simultaneously without risking accidents. Not to mention it is a waste of the available resources. Warehouse management software improves your ability to coordinate material handling equipment.