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A comprehensive guide to warehouse automation (video)

Fully Automated Warehouse – Successful installation of an automated warehouse by Beck & Pollitzer team for a dairy production plant.  One of the main challenges of the project was limited space – from the highest point of the stacker crane to the ceiling of the room was less than 50 mm, so all the work had to be done with pinpoint precision.

Warehouse Automation – definition, types, benefits, and latest trends

If you work in e-commerce, you’ll have heard about it. If you’re in the e-grocery sector, you’ll likely be raving about it. Warehouse automation, automated warehouses, industrial automation e-warehouses, call them what you will, are revolutionising commerce, taking repetitive tasks out of the hands of humans and generating greater efficiencies for all kinds of businesses.

In this article, we look at the impact, the options, and the latest trends in the automated warehouse world, but we start with a back-to-basics definition of the biggest and most exciting transformation to happen in logistics for generations.

Article Contents:

What is warehouse automation?

Warehouse automation comes in many forms but, generally speaking, it involves the use of robots and automated processes to streamline and speed up the work that goes on in warehouses, the ultimate goal being to boost productivity.

All kinds of warehouse activities can be automated, from computer warehouse management systems on back office computers, to picking goods off shelves, applying barcode labels to products, and operating vehicles on the shop floor. Companies everywhere are seeing the benefits of industrial automation and with new technology being developed at a rapid rate, this is a sector that’s only going to grow.

How warehouse automation works

E-commerce businesses with online ordering systems are likely to utilise automated warehouse technology to help pick, package, and post products to customers more efficiently.

The degree to which businesses are using robots and automatic technology to replace human labour depends on the type of automation deployed. In some cases, it can just be warehouse management software installed into a computer system to take repetitive tasks out of the hands of human team members. At the other end of the scale, the lion’s share of warehouse operations can be handled automatically, with minimal human involvement.

AI optimisation

Artificial intelligence is already playing a major role in all forms of warehouse and industrial automation. The advantages AI brings are multiple and compelling, covering day-to-day tasks and longer-term strategies.

AI is increasing the accuracy of inventory management processes. AI-generated algorithms so complex they’d blow most human minds, are helping businesses understand the current state of their market so they can identify current trends and buying patterns and influence future business decisions. Within an automated warehouse, AI will help optimise all aspects of the management, by defining the optimum location of such product in the system. This uses typically multiple variables such as:

  • Demand for the good.
  • What other goods are usually ordered at the same time?
  • The shelf life of the product, for Groceries will require some of these to be picked even though not sold.
  • Optimizing routes and moving products during “downtime”

Despite the scare stories of AI taking over the world, the concept of a totally automated warehouse is some way off. There will always be a role for humans to play in warehouse automation. But AI is certainly eliminating costly human errors, and producing faster results when it comes to finding, picking, and transporting products in the most efficient way.

What’s more, AI has a big role to play in beefing-up warehouse security, with systems able to analyse what’s happening and assess the risk events and actions pose, even assigning robots to take over more dangerous tasks from humans.

Types of warehouse automation

Traditional automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS)

Goods To Person (GTP) technology does exactly what it says. Using a central database, automated equipment will locate items stored in a warehouse and transport them to a person waiting in the picking area. It’s a process that proves far quicker than traditional manual picking systems, enabling companies who use it to reduce their operating costs and improve customer service levels.

AS/RS technology is a form of GTP technology that automatically retrieves goods from storage in the warehouse and places them back if required.

Pick to light systems require warehouse operatives to scan barcodes and LED displays which guide them to the location where the product is stored. The tech indicates how many items need picking, and the operator places them in a container. The tech then highlights the next picking location, saving a lot of manual searching time in the warehouse.

Carousels provide an AS/RS system that uses rotating shelving units to deliver items stored in a warehouse to a manual operation. Horizontal and vertical carousels are available, each with the benefit of requiring less storage space than traditional shelving and reducing the time waste, and cost of manual picking errors.

Bot-based systems

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are especially popular in e-commerce related warehouses with high volume requirements and a higher level of manual involvement.

Some well-known examples of bot-based systems include Alert Innovation which uses a platform that supports grocers using online ordering systems. The fabric uses micro-fulfilment technology that combines intelligent robotic processes with localised last-mile operations. These bring fresh efficiencies to supply chains by ensuring local inventories are in the right place at the right time. And e-commerce giants Amazon employ robot vehicles that are guided around warehouses by a combination of motion and optical sensors.

Cube based systems (Autostore / Ocado OSP / Cimcorp)

Warehouse technology really does come in all shapes and sizes, and AutoStore™ is proof of that. It’s an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) that uses robots within a cube grid layout giving warehouses up to four times the storage capacity. It’s popular with all kinds of companies and is known for helping organisations get more out of their warehouse space. The Ocado Smart Platform (OSP) also uses the cubic approach to drive more flexibility, productivity and profitability for clients. Cimcorp on the other side is using freestanding totes piled by bots on overhead cranes, much like a giant game of Tetris.

Benefits of Warehouse Automation

New ways of working only get popular if they offer a better solution to the current way of doing things. And that’s certainly the case with industrial and warehouse automation, which is bringing all these benefits to the organisations who’ve adopted it:

Cost reductions – Warehouse automation is helping companies everywhere streamline their work processes, boost efficiencies and reduce the impact of human error on their operations.

Automated systems can almost immediately pinpoint the whereabouts in the warehouse every item in an order is located, increasing the speed of picking versus humans. They can also optimise the routes needed to take to pick the items. Add conveyors and robots into the mix and you get even speedier order fulfilment, as well as the potential of overnight shipping.

Temperature control of perishable goods – In the world of perishable goods, the temperature is usually the worse enemy of longevity! Using an Automated warehouse allows to reach and maintain lower temperatures, by avoiding interaction with humans. Traditional systems had doors to the ambient constantly opened and closed, as well as 37 degrees humans impacting the overall temperature of the building. With Automation, the chilled section remains unaltered and temperature can be managed closely.

More efficient use of space – Traditional warehouses require gaps between storage shelves for pallets, pallet jacks, and warehouse staff to access when storing, picking, and moving goods. But when robots, conveyors, lifters, and automated vehicles are the main workers on the shop floor, these gaps can be reduced or eliminated altogether, meaning there’s more room to store more products.

Safety and security – More accurate inventory counts and management are another key benefits of warehouse automation, reducing the chances of theft of stock going undiscovered. And because most automated warehouse processes involve some kind of machine doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to bringing products to human workers in the packing area, it reduces the chances of accidents and means fewer people are moving about the warehouse at any one time.

What’s more, robots tend to be way more reliable than us humans when it comes to safely picking items. It seems that our slippery fingers are more likely to damage or drop a package than a robot that’s been programmed to pick with precision, and then safely transport items across the warehouse.

Like any area of life reliant on innovation, warehouse automation isn’t standing still. Currently, there are two clearly different approaches when it comes to automation, with a company’s preference chiefly coming down to the size of their budget and their inventory.

As the name suggests, Micro Fulfilment Centres (MFCs) operate at the smaller end of the scale and entail the integration of compact systems into an existing building, such as a supermarket warehouse or another area at the back of the store away from the customer zone. In the e-grocery world, MFCs are incredibly popular, embracing robotic power to grab products that have been ordered online in a fraction of the time it takes humans. They allow traditional grocers to use their existing real estate and transition quickly to E-warehousing, opening new channels of distribution.

And at the other end of the scale are the CFCs – Customer Fulfilment Centres. These are large, purpose-built hubs in which everything from picking to shipping via processing and packaging is taken care of. Third-party e-commerce providers also make use of these centres to streamline their processes and get orders in the hands of customers, faster. This Hub and Spoke configuration is very popular with a delivery value proposition

Automated Warehouse installation

Whether MFC or a CFC, ASRS, or cube based system, Beck & Pollitzer has established itself as a global leader in the warehouse automation sector, with extensive experience in carrying out automated warehouse installations and automated storage installations across the world.

With a talented team of over 1,200 people based on four continents, we customise innovative warehouse automation solutions to meet client needs. Implementing tried and tested processes and procedures means our global network can roll-out a standardised suite of installations.

We can help at various stages or every stage of an e-warehouse project, from delivery to commissioning, and including, relocation, installation, and removal services. Whatever your requirements, we’ll work collaboratively with you to find the most cost-effective installation solutions. You can find out more about Beck & Pollitzer’s warehouse automation services and pedigree here.