The peak of pandemic-fueled challenges has passed, but companies still need to modernize warehouse operations. Automation is a lever executives must pull to keep up in a rapidly evolving marketplace that demands speed and efficiency.  

But how do they do this effectively? A prudent strategy starts with basic, proven automation solutions instead of focusing on mastering an end-to-end model. This is a reliable way to keep pace with rising costs and consumer demand changes.

Optimize costs, follow the customer, pursue flexibility

Shippers and their suppliers are adding technology to increase picking productivity; boost cycle time; reduce overtime and hiring expense; lift retention; speed-up training; and decrease overhead and inflexible infrastructure/hardware. This has led to a boom: The warehouse automation market is expected to reach $41 billion by 2027, growing at a healthy 15% CAGR between 2022 and 2027, according to LogisticsIQ.

Not a one-size-fits-all warehouse

Amazon-style distribution centers—equipped end-to-end with sophisticated robotics and often differentiated by product type—inform most people’s views of warehouse automation. This is a key component of the story, but not the entire story.

For smaller and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), scale presents a challenge. Most warehouses are built to meet several needs of multiple customers handling different product types and sizes. SMEs need solutions designed for less mature supply chains.

Rather than invest in new construction or reconfigure existing operations, companies should leverage modular solutions. These (mostly) proven solutions allow SMEs to tailor their approach to specific needs rather than pursuing an end-to-end solution.

To be sure, the automation space is full of start-up phase offerings. Therefore, questions about service and support, integration and operationalization, and the impact of consolidation naturally arise.

Early-stage companies have challenges but offer substantial value to early adopters.  However, most SMEs should turn to established providers with more thoroughly vetted offerings. These offerings include modular, basic solutions that are focused on a particular process/flow, rather than a complex end-to-end solution. As a result, companies can focus on one or a few areas at a time, which can be more economical at the beginning of the journey.

Applying implementation-ready automation in specific scenarios

1) Inbound

For Inbound, a key solution is retractable/ergonomic conveyors that can help increase offloading efficiency and safety with reasonable capex. These systems are designed to speed up loading and unloading containers or trailers, resulting in capacity and throughput increases. Certain systems, in fact, are advertised as cutting unloading times in half.

Vacuum lift assist technology is another example of basic inbound automation. Like retractable conveyers, this solution can be used for outbound, with its dual purpose of boosting efficiency and ROI.

Automatic palletizers, meanwhile, are additional basic automation equipment used for inbound. Pickle Robots is a pilot-stage solution with plans for commercial delivery this year. This involves a robotic arm mounted on a telescoping conveyor to unload palletized freight. The arm is equipped with vision technology.

2) Inventory management

There are modules of automation between inbound and outbound processing where efficiency can be improved.

Raymond’s Radioshuttle  is a high-density, semi-automated storage and retrieval system that optimizes and maximizes warehouse space to increase operational efficiency and maintain maximum selectivity.   

RF device management can also be improved by automation and technology. ARC created a solution to manage scanners used for inbound package scanning, inventory check, mPOS, and more. Its device management solution stores, secures, and charges handheld devices, helping automate end-to-end flow throughout the warehouse. The objective is to reduce shrink, productivity hits, and payroll time. The system automatically pulls faulty devices from circulation.

3) Outbound

A key focus for outbound is how to get product quickly and efficiently out of the warehouse.

In addition to the handful of inbound systems that can be dual purpose such as Destuff-it and vacuum lift, a pallet wrapper is another example of outbound automation—and its payback period can be 6-12 months.

 Other solutions include:

  • Carton erectors that expedite building custom boxes and wrapping an item
  • AMR (autonomous mobile robotics) solutions, such as robotic picking solutions offered by Locus
  • Robotic palletizing solutions with an end-of-arm tool, often paired with conveyors

Consider the advantages: Don’t miss out!

A lot of these implementation-phase automation concepts require minimal IT engagement—they don’t need "smart" integration with complex WMS/WCS/WES systems to be effective. This is a big advantage and incentive to invest, especially with the modularity of the systems allowing you to truly invest in what you need. Other key benefits include:

  • Safety: improved ergonomics and safety; boosted employee retention; reduced materials damage
  • Efficiency
  • Quick testing / proof of concept
  • Decreased labor costs

The automation trend is accelerating and those companies not exploring automation will be left behind. Look at the various solutions out there and evaluate what could work best for your business. Launch a pilot test to assess return on investment. Then scale across your network.

Don’t let an ineffective automation strategy hamper your ability to keep up.