In recent years, new warehouse automation technologies are gaining momentum because of the need to optimize labor time and reduce operating and order fulfillment costs. These needs have surfaced because of the rise of e-commerce (click here to read the effects of e-commerce in the warehouse industry) and higher customer demands, such as lower costs and faster response times, as stated by MHI.
In this article, we will explore why automation is an important solution to the challenges mentioned above and some specific warehouse automation technologies that can effectively help you overcome the challenges.
Why Warehouse Automation is an Effective Solution to Current Challenges
As we have touched upon in the intro, e-commerce, its effects to order fulfillment, as well as higher customer demands are driving momentum to the development and adoption of automation technologies. This is because automation solutions can improve warehouse operational efficiency and facilitate quicker and more accurate order fulfillment, which, in turn, leads to an enhanced experience for customers.
4 Effective Warehouse Automation Solutions
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) refer to a variation of computer-controlled systems for automatically storing and retrieving goods from defined storage locations in a warehouse with precision, accuracy, and speed, as described by MHI. These systems are used in automating various warehouse processes such as order picking, storage, kitting, consolidation, assembly, replenishment, etc.
Some benefits of using an AS/RS system include floor space optimization, improved accuracy, and increased productivity, while its main disadvantage is the significant investment required to install, maintain, and operate it. Consequently, AS/RS systems are preferable in cases where the warehouse deals with a large number of products.
The Pick-to-Light System is a low automation technology that supports the pickers in the warehouse with light signals. It uses a light device that is mounted on racks, shelves, and workstations to guide employees to the correct product locations and the right quantities required to fulfill the order. When all lights turn off, it indicates that the picker has finished the current order and can move on to the next one.
Pick-to-light systems have been acknowledged as the fastest operator-based picking strategy available to execute broken case quantity order fulfillment operations. They provide an accurate and efficient method of paperless picking, sorting, and assembling of products. In dense picking environments, the high installation cost is counterbalanced by a large number of picks per unit of distance. However, they are not ideal for warehouses that require frequent layout rearrangements, and it can be challenging to support simultaneous picking by several pickers.
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) refer to robots that can sense physical surroundings and move through the warehouse without supervision. While traditional AGVs require external guidance, AMRs can operate without being directly supervised by a human operator and perform several activities from transporting materials and goods to facilitating an existing pick strategy. They usually perform better in warehouses with high-volume and high-labor requirements, since it helps reduce travel time. But with warehouses that handle extremely weighty materials, these robots are not equipped to handle them as of yet.
According to the Guide to Autonomous Mobile Reports of CONVEYCO, typically, AMRs can be split into three functionalities:
Move inventory within a facility
Assist in automating the warehouse picking process
Flexible sortation solution
And, Autonomous Mobile Robots provide value to warehouse operation in the following senses:
Flexibility and scalability: Initial deployment can start with a few units with the flexibility and scalability to add and reduce as necessary.
Reduced labor costs: The less time workers spend traveling, the more time they spend fulfilling orders.
Increase warehouse safety: Support the workers by taking over heavy lifting and minimizing the involvement of humans.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs)
Much like autonomous robots, lightweight Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are incrementally being adopted for inventory management in warehouses. The recent technological advances of UAVs, such as sensors and visual-based navigation, are helping in performing activities like inventory audit, item search, and stock taking.
Some benefits of using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) include better efficiency, improved accuracy, and increased safety, while some of the disadvantages include high initial investment and technology limitations such as battery life. Also, UAVs are preferable in warehouses that are relatively large in size with long corridors and high shelves.
Each of the warehouse automation solutions discussed above has its advantages and disadvantages, as summarized in the table below:
The four warehouse automation solutions have seen an increase in adoption since they can help companies sustain and thrive amongst the challenges posed by e-commerce, such as faster fulfillment times and lower costs. By investing in these technologies, you can achieve greater efficiency and accuracy, which can help increase your perfect order rate and provide better service to your customers.
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