Warehouse automation is more than a trend. Most professionals accept that automation will play a critical role in the future of logistics and the greater supply chain. However, there are significant discrepancies regarding what warehouse automation looks like at peak performance. Is an operation with a few automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) technically “automated,” if that equipment doesn’t interact with a larger Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)? When should legacy processes be discontinued — if ever? And, perhaps most importantly: Is there a point at which a warehouse is fully automated, and if so, what’s the threshold?
In our piece “The Semi-Automated Warehouse,” we explained that automation is a spectrum, not a project with a single, universal goal. Legacy processes can still provide value within an automated warehouse, and developing a fully automated greenfield distribution center is a tall order. A task-based approach can make automation goals more achievable.
And whether you’re incorporating automation into an established distribution center or planning a greenfield operation, an automation initiative requires structure and planning. A key aspect of that planning involves supportive material handling tools — non-automated equipment that enhances the capabilities of your technology. Careful planning can result in a greater return on your (substantial) automation investment.
How Support Equipment Enables Warehouse Automation
To put it plainly, automation is an exciting prospect, and it’s easy to get carried away by the potential. Automated material handling equipment frees up workers by handling tedious tasks, often resulting in an immediate improvement in throughput. However, many warehouse operations have embraced new technologies without making practical considerations. Holistic planning can dramatically improve results.
For example, many AGV systems have built-in trays and high capacities, but when those mechanical limits are exceeded, attaching a trailer could improve the throughput of the unit. The trailer is the support equipment; it works within the automation process to add value.
Supportive material handling equipment isn’t necessarily high-tech, but it improves the efficiency of automated equipment by adding flexibility. That’s especially important during the first stages of automation — either in retrofitting or greenfield design — since your planned processes will need to change and adapt.
Some considerations to keep in mind:
Relying on automated equipment carries risk.
Of course, any material handling purchase has risks, but the concerns with automation are distinct: AGVs, sortation systems, and other high-tech tools can become obsolete. Many newer systems have limited warranty periods, and the technology of automation is progressing quickly. Since automated material handling is expensive, committing to full automation can be costly.
Support equipment mitigates this risk. If your operation needs to upgrade, non-automated equipment can be used with the new equipment. If you rely solely on a single type of automated machine, however, you’ll need to replace everything when a more efficient technology becomes available.
Support equipment can help businesses handle sudden peaks.
If a distribution center encounters sudden seasonal increases in demand, they’ll need enough automation resources for smooth operation during those peaks. Of course, automation is expensive; planning for a tenfold increase in demand means purchasing 10 times the equipment.
During non-peak seasons, that equipment takes up valuable floor space without providing value. Some automated equipment can be leased, but leasing introduces other practical concerns; certain machines may be unavailable during peak demand times, and leased equipment forces an operation to refine its workflows.
Support equipment allows operations to make adjustments without enormous investments. Even in a level-loaded warehouse, fluctuations can occur. The right material handling equipment provides scalability in either direction and limits expenditures on robotic arms, AGVs, and other expensive tools.
Legacy processes can’t be discontinued overnight.
Creating an intralogistic warehouse means collecting and studying data, and no business can achieve full automation right away. Support equipment is typically compatible with legacy processes; a Pallet Carousel & Skid Positioner, for instance, is designed for ergonomic loading and unloading, but can also add to the functionality of certain automated palletizing systems.
Building for automation requires a holistic approach that recognizes the importance of legacy manual processes. Non-automated equipment adds flexibility, so your operation can gradually add automation without sacrificing throughput during the transition period.
Supportive material handling equipment can be integrated into an intralogistic approach.
Operators can use barcodes, radio frequency identification (RFID), or mobile & wireless technologies to track materials on any piece of material handling equipment. In this way, support equipment can fill in an important data gap — by tracking efficiency for legacy processes and automated processes, managers can make better decisions to optimize throughput.
With that said, support equipment should be chosen carefully. If an AGV will need to pull a fleet of trailers, those trailers will need to be sturdy enough to carry materials, but light enough to allow the AGV to remain mobile. In other words, don’t allocate your entire budget to automated tech, then underspend on support equipment.
Employing the Right Support Equipment for Your Warehouse or Distribution Center
Every warehouse is different, and every automation strategy needs to be coordinated with practical on-the-ground considerations. The process can feel overwhelming, but by looking at each task individually (manual or automated) and evaluating it carefully, managers can find solutions without sacrificing scalability.
Improving AGV Efficiency with Industrial Trailers
The global AGV market is expected to grow significantly over the next several years, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 9 percent from 2021-2025. AGVs reduce labor costs, reduce product loss, and improve workplace safety. They’re also significantly less expensive than fixed automated systems, but they’re limited by capacity.
Without proper planning, you might still find yourself sending workers across your distribution center’s floor to fetch additional materials that the AGV couldn’t carry in a single trip. Support equipment can be used to increase the capacity of an AGV or autonomous mobile robot (AMR), delivering the benefits of the technology with simple, practical improvements.
BHS Industrial Trailers (IT-2442) can be latched to an AGV or pulled manually, creating a train assembly that can navigate easily through narrow aisles. With heavy-duty capacities and customizable shelving, Industrial Trailers greatly expand AGV capacity without limiting mobility.
Handling Peaks with Order Picking and Packing Equipment
Few distribution centers can fully automate order picking and packing — and even when full automation is possible, workers may need to handle tasks manually on occasion, particularly during peak demand periods. An automated storage & retrieval system (AS/RS) can simplify order picking, but if the system isn’t scalable, it can become overwhelmed when throughput suddenly increases.
When workers perform any manual work, employers should provide them with appropriate equipment. For example, the BHS Pallet Carousel & Skid Positioner (PCP) is available in a spring-operated or pneumatic configuration, and either option allows for versatile work positioning with a high capacity of 4,500 pounds (2041 kilograms). If your facility is moving towards automation, but still palletizing or de-palletizing manually, the PCP fulfills an important role in maintaining throughput while keeping workers safe.
Likewise, the BHS Order Picking Cart (OPC) provides simple ergonomic handling for tasks like returning inventory, unloading packages, gathering parts, or anything else that doesn’t fit into your automated workflow. All BHS material handling equipment prioritizes ergonomics, and custom configurations are available to help you handle any task effectively.
Creating a Plan for Warehouse Automation
When you’re planning for automation, you’ll need to expect the unexpected. Automated material handling equipment has physical limitations, and when those limits are reached, you’ll need to find ways to fill in the gaps. Rather than shifting the workload to workers and immediately reverting to legacy processes, spend time on outfitting. Consider how supportive material handling equipment can improve your ability to react in the moment.
From the first stages of your automation initiative, consider unexpected factors that could affect workflows. Some basic questions to consider:
- How would your facility react to a sudden increase in orders?
- Is your automated workflow robust enough to handle putbacks for cancelled orders?
- If you need to physically move automated equipment to a different part of your facility, how will that change your manual processes?
- What are the physical limitations of your automated equipment, and could other material handling equipment expand those limits?
- If your automated processes require manual work (for instance, workers pick orders, then put them on an AMR or AGV), do the workers have the necessary equipment to work safely and efficiently?
- Is supportive material handling equipment designed with sound ergonomic principles?
As you start building towards automation, track data and analyze carefully. Get feedback from employees, and don’t try to eliminate established legacy processes immediately. Most importantly, make sure you have enough supportive material handling equipment to keep your automated equipment running.
Growing pains are inevitable, but the benefits of automation (or semi-automation) are substantial. By planning carefully, you’ll be able to find equipment that supports your efforts. To learn more about how material handling equipment supports automation, contact the BHS sales team at 1.800.BHS.9500.