In content taken from his book ‘Global Supply Chain Ecosystems’, Mark Millar discusses the advancements being made in warehousing automation – explaining how companies are adopting greater automation and the benefits it can bring to business operations.

During recent years, we have seen warehousing operations incorporate more and more automation. Leveraging the enormous advances in equipment control systems and technologies, warehouse operations have progressively adopted automation to become much more productive and efficient from both cost and time perspectives.

From the first fully-automated high bay pallet stores that used stacker cranes and pallet conveyors, automated systems have advanced well beyond the storage and retrieval of unit loads. Modern systems are used for a variety of applications, including unloading and loading pallets; unmanned narrow-aisle cranes in semi-and fully-automated warehouses; and sortation, conveying, picking and packing systems that enable smaller unit loads such as totes, cartons, hanging garments and boxes to be processed automatically.

In addition to this flexibility, automated systems work around the clock, don’t get tired, are never late and carry out each operation in exactly the same manner. They can operate faster and more effectively than manually-operated systems and free up labour resources for tasks where the human touch provides a more productive and flexible solution, allowing for improvisation and decision-making as required.

Fully-automated warehouses can operate without lighting – reducing costs – while automated chilled or frozen storage facilities can function without the need to accommodate staff working in very low temperatures. Automated guided vehicles can travel throughout the warehouse to bring inventory to workstations, reducing picking times and allowing human operatives to do what they do best in a more productive manner. Of course, automated systems do break down occasionally, but so do people… 

Robotics is the latest generation of technological innovation in warehousing operations, embracing both hardware developments and the all-important software. Steady and sometimes spectacular advances in information technology and software controls have made a huge contribution to the growth in robotic systems. Their ability to handle vast amounts of data about every aspect of goods movements; instruct and manage storage, handling, fulfilment and other systems and equipment; and provide management with real-time, accurate information, have all proved invaluable to supply chain management and logistics operations.

Without doubt, one of the highest profile events in supply chain innovation was Amazon’s acquisition of US robotics company Kiva Systems for USD 775 million back in 2012 – a massive investment in automation, even for the market leader.

Deployed in Amazon’s huge fulfilment centres, the Kiva robots carry goods to the person at the packing station. Following a complex grid and guided by sensors and wireless technology, the robots move around the warehouse floors picking up storage racks full of merchandise and transferring them to the final picking locations for customer orders. Warehouse operatives no longer need to walk up and down aisles to pick goods, but can now stay by their own workstations, making them far more efficient and productive.

Amazon reports that its robots significantly increase productivity, with the ability to pick four times as many orders per hour as a human worker; it now has 45,000 robots deployed alongside its 300,000+ employees.

More recently, the 2017 MHI Annual Industry Report – which surveyed 1,200 companies representing a wide range of industries ­– identified ‘Robotics and Automation’ as the top disruptive technology that respondents said could be a source of either disruption or competitive advantage. The report also confirmed that hiring and retaining a skilled workforce continues to be the biggest obstacle facing supply chain professionals – with 63% of survey participants reporting the issue (up from 58% in 2016). Additionally, 50% of companies reported that training their workforce to use new technologies is a top priority.

Of all the disruptive technologies that are impacting logistics and supply chain management, Warehouse Automation is the one that is currently gaining the most traction and delivering meaningful results; and it’s not just Amazon in the USA.

  • In China, the STO Express sortation centre in Hangzhou deploys self-charging robots that sort 200,000 packages per day.
  • In Germany, BMW has adopted driverless tugger trains to distribute parts and components around the operational facilities at a number of its plants.
  • In the UK, online high-end fashion retailer NET-A-PORTER uses a fully-automated high bay warehouse system and robot pickers to handle order fulfilment at its London distribution centre.
  • Massachusetts-based Locus Robotics developed its own warehouse robotics solution called the LocusBot which is now being deployed in e-commerce fulfilment centres by both brand companies and logistics service providers.

Full automation is not always the ultimate solution, but for a great many leaders in supply chain operations, automation has become an essential tool in the never-ending quest to reduce costs, increase productivity and improve service.

However automated a company’s warehouse operations are today, one thing is certain: the pace of development means further automation is just around the corner. As automation and supply chain innovation increase, companies stand to benefit from more efficient business operations and greater accuracy in order picking and fulfilment.

Increasingly, the decision to invest in such systems is itself becoming automatic!

To find out more about warehouse automation and supply chain innovation – and discover what other companies are doing to build competitive advantage in their supply chains, buy Mark’s book today. Get 25% discount off Global Supply Chain Ecosystems – quote promotion code GSCE25 when ordering online from publisher Kogan Page –