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Warehouse automation, are you the perfect candidate?


Antoine Grand'Maison

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Warehouse automation projects truly are worth considering when productivity increase and payback are critical to you on both short and long term. But such conceptual changes are not always easy to implement and require very detailed planning and analysis in order to ensure that your investment will quickly generate the expected benefits. Conscious of the magnitude of such constraints, organizations embarking in automation projects must ask themselves the right questions.

 Different automation solutions

Automation can be implemented in different areas of the process:

  • Storage with equipment such as AS/RS handling either pallets or cases (mini-load systems);
  • Order preparation or kitting through sorters, Good-to-Men concepts, carousels, assembly lines…;
  • Packaging for case forming and closing in order to minimize void;
  • Material handling aspects with conveyors (belt, rollers, trays…).

More than often, automated warehouse are assembled of many of these elements. Such specific assembly must be tailored to your current and future needs. While productivity and payback are often key decision drivers, flexibility must not be overlooked if you do not want to be caught with a white elephant if your business drastically changes.

Why should you automate?

While automation may not be suited for everyone it sure is worth looking into it through a sound analysis of your operations and conceptual designs. The purpose of such exercise being to drastically increase throughput, improve productivity and quality while reducing labor and space requirements.

Over the past years, we have seen a significant increase in companies relying on automation to optimize their processes. These projects were mostly justified by the following:

  • Continuous increase of labor costs in logistics operations;
  • Demonstrated concepts through ever-growing implementations mostly in Europe and USA;
  • Increasing recognition of the value of logistics excellence in organizations as well as a better understanding of the added value of such systems by logistics managers.

With automation comes process changes

Automation brings tangible benefits to your operations but one must be aware that these gains do not come without any changes. Often, employees will experience significant changes in their daily tasks and responsibilities. Such projects therefore require sound change management skills and training programs.

Controls must be implemented to monitor process variances and prevent change adverse employees to fall back to their past habits. During start-up, such follow-up is extremely important as we all know that bugs occur and need to be fixed.

With automation also comes preventive maintenance. Systems require regular check-ups to prevent failures. In the case of highly automated operations, such maintenance must be performed with discipline in order not to stop production whenever equipment fails. Depending on the complexity of the system, you may need full-time on site support from mechanics. Acknowledging that problems may occur, while you deploy automation you should also develop a contingency plan describing operations within different degradation levels.

Key success factors to an automation project

Based on our experience, successful automation projects must have:

  1. A clear and precise scope and design parameter description signed off by the client. This is a critical yet simple aspect. This information must be clearly communicated to vendors and they must also guaranty that they will meet these criteria;
  2. A detailed data analysis of logistics flow is key to having a sound understanding of operations. A functional analysis must be written by vendors in close collaboration with client. Such document must then be signed-off by client;
  3. Once validated, vendors move on to the manufacturing & programming phase. During this period of lower occupation on the client side, operating modes must be written. Test scripts should be written. Training should be planned and a detailed cut-over and roll-back plan should be prepared;
  4. A well orchestrated equipment installation. Such work may require phases as well as off-hour work. It must be followed by a client representative in order to prevent schedule to slide. Detailed installation scheduling is often required to prevent installers to slow-down each other;
  5. A detailed testing & simulation phase: This phase is critical to a smooth operation start-up. Often neglected because the schedule is tight it is also the phase that people regret the most not having performed enough. A detailed testing & simulation phase will not only allow the vendor to debug is system but will also enable the client to see and understand system limitations. Moreover, it should be a period during which the client understands how the system behaves and therefore how operations should be managed upon start-up;
  6. A gradual start-up.

After all being said, is automation for you?

Over the past ten years, we have witnessed a significant increase in automation projects. Vendors have truly gone beyond basic material handling and storage concepts in order to bring innovation and added value to your operations. Systems being implemented are now recognized for their flexibility and quick ROI period. Developed in modules, systems are scalable and therefore quickly affordable to a small size company. Remember that no company is too small for automation. It all depends on its desire to provide leading edge services to their clients as well as reducing their dependency on a shrinking workforce. Automation and flexibility are not opposites anymore.

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