The world of warehouse automation has changed and there are now new technologies and new systems available as well as developments of existing, to change and improve your warehouse and distribution operations.
Given that there is a wide range of automated and robotic solutions available across all areas of the warehouse, it can be difficult to know where to start, where the best benefits might lie, and how to go about bringing automation to your operation.
In this article we look at where to start – what areas you should look at and what the options are.
The options can be split into five areas where Automation can help.
- System Automation
- Capacity – storage capability
- Transport – movement within the warehouse
- Goods to man systems – helping the picker/operative
- Handling – replacing the picker/operative
When automation and robotics is mentioned, people tend to think of the physical equipment - things that move, such as shuttles and robots. But the first area of automation is actually the systems and processes used in a warehouse. Warehouse Management Systems are all about automating the processes that are used in the warehouse, including location management and order processing.
If you are relying on your operatives to make decisions on product location and pickface management, it is worth considering investing in a WMS to automate your processes.
Standard racking and shelving systems have aisles for operatives to access the product locations. The space required for the aisles depends on the types of racking and shelving and the mechanical handling equipment required to access the locations. The height you can store to and pick from is also constrained by the need for access. The net effect is that storage density is reduced compared to that which can be achieved by automated goods to man systems that can reduce the number of aisles, the width of aisles and make full use of the building envelope and the available cube.
Increasing the potential capacity of your building can lead to savings in property costs and outside storage, as well as reducing your operating costs.
Many warehouses have a large footprint and generate a large number of movements and significant travel distances. Much of this travel is tramming product from receiving to putaway and from picking to consolidation and despatch. It has always been possible to install conveyors systems to transport pallets, totes and cartons. However, where you have multiple pick-up points and destinations, such systems can be very expensive as well as occupying valuable space.
There have been many developments recently in freepath automation – AGVs (automated guided vehicles) and AMR (autonomous mobile robots) that can transport pallets, totes and cartons without the need for conveyors or the need for protected routes. The control and guidance systems allow the safe working of these robots in the warehouse environment and flexibility to provide point to point movement and reduce operator involvement in moving products around your facility.
Goods To Man Systems
Conventional picking involves operatives walking or travelling to the location of the products to be picked. The actual picking is the productive part of the process, walking and travelling is non-productive.
Goods to man systems that bring the products required in sequence to pick stations eliminate the walking and travelling component. There are now automated systems available that will deliver pallets, totes, cartons and even bays of shelving or racking to the picker. Many of these systems employ individual shuttles and AMR providing flexibility in throughput as you can add shuttles and robots as your volumes and throughputs grow.
Much of automation in the past has been focused on handing unit loads – pallets, totes and cartons. They are consistent in size and “easy” to design systems to handle. The developments of robot arms, in vision systems and in picking devices are such that it is possible to automate some of the picking of individual items.
Picking has always been a large part of the overall labour in a warehouse and it is now possible with the right handling devices to automate the picking of a wide range of products. It is not possible currently to consistently pick all products with automation but it is certainly possible to integrate the picking of some with the manual picking of others. There are many developments in the field of robots that will work with operatives.
Given the wide range of available options, the next step is to look at the activities, requirements and resources used in each area to identify the size of the potential opportunities. This will be covered in subsequent articles.
Logistics Planning Consultants
LPC has designed many warehouse operations over the years and has always looked at the potential for automation in our solutions. We can help companies with determining the requirements, identifying the opportunities and potential solutions and suppliers.
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