Why do companies seek to automate their warehouse facilities? It takes a large initial investment and nerves stronger than industrial shelving to alter a proven, if manual system. Full or partial warehouse automation projects can range a great deal in price and can be very expensive to implement.
Projects have ‘ramping-up’ periods where efficiency levels drop, companies can receive bad press and there is also the argument that it can put people out of work. On the flip side of the coin, warehouse automation can rejuvenate supply chain and distribution networks, can be crucial to cutting operating costs and can lead to a substantial increase in profitability.
Steve Knights, manager – business development & marketing for Siemens logistics & assembly systems comments: “The recent trends are that pure pallet warehouses are becoming almost commodity items and no longer hold the air of mystery and fear that they did for users 20 years ago. Customers are now comfortable in issuing detailed specifications and comparing costs from proven system suppliers. However, there are still potential pitfalls for buyers and not all suppliers are equal. The old adage of “you get what you pay for” is still relevant.”
In 1995 Argos, the UK’s largest non-food retailer, started thinking in terms of automated warehousing technology to give it an edge in meeting its expanding distribution needs. By 2001, they had developed a new distribution strategy and Argos was ready to invite tenders for its largest element, the development of a green field site at Barton-under-Needwood in Staffordshire. Vanderlande won the tender to supply mechanical handling equipment against five other companies. Although it is one of the largest automated handling projects in Europe, Vanderlande describe the design as ‘elegant in its simplicity’. With the scale of project, they felt simplicity was key in ensuring reliable, efficient long-term operation with the lowest operating costs. Roger Peart, sales and marketing manager for Vanderlande UK comments: ‘The best engineering solutions are always the simple solutions.”
When discussing current trends in the sector Peart comments that there is a current trend toward “more efficient picking through standard software modules [and] faster storage/retrieval machines to reduce cycle times, [with] flexible systems that can adapt to business change, robotic ‘palletisation’ and ‘depalletisation’, tracking and tracing through the supply chain including RFID”.
And he adds that an estimated 39% of a warehouse costs are in picking procedures.
Gavin Jones, from Intern Transport Systems ITS (UK), says that current trends seem to be in improvements as opposed to “out and out automation. This is affected by the uncertainty regarding economic factors regarding retailers and to an extent the remaining manufacturers of goods”.
Jones continues: “There is quite some ‘consolidation’ in both sectors impinging on the ability to look far enough into the future.”
Clive Young, a UK technical account manager with Witron, says: “As a trend in automation, there is an ever increasing emphasis being placed upon all aspects of ergonomics. Whilst this can be solved with MHE relatively easily in the confines of a warehouse and distribution system, this reaches far and wide out of these areas into the stores themselves to the final person that handles a despatched tote of goods etc. It is not uncommon therefore to have weight limitations within a tote. This and other factors to ease the end job – for example ‘Store Friendly Sequence’ (so that all items in totes are for the same locale) can only be solved with a mixture of good design and software capable of planning and managing these HSE-related issues alongside other commercial aspirations, such as maximised Tote Fill.”
When asked if the UK market is different to that in Europe, Phil Steeds, sales director (UK) for FKI Logistex, says that they are different by way of approach. He comments that “the issues driving the move and justification to automate in the UK are shared with some EU countries” and that these pressures are on “the labour pool availability” and also with the implementation of legislative changes in health and safety and the Working Time Directive for each market”.
Peart comments: “The infrastructure is different in respect to communication and labour. There is a move to set up in the former eastern block as labour is available and generally cheaper but this can only be a temporary thing. In terms of applied technology there is little difference.”
Young observes: “There was a time when there seemed to be a feeling that in the UK people simply would not invest the ‘typically larger’ sums of money required to move to automation, I think this time left us in the late 1990s. The concern with the market place is now more familiarity, confidence, risk aversion and the operational know-how to manage these different installations.”
He says availability is a key focus and that there needs to be a structure that brings the operations teams, preventative maintenance and support engineering teams closer together. “This thinking is now common across Europe – we may be several years slower in starting, but are quickly catching up.”
So what are the advantages and disadvantages of automating a warehouse?
Peart comments: “The advantages are in greater capacity with less labour or the same amount of labour. Reduction in the need for skilled labour, stringent manual handling regulations which are becoming more strict. Disadvantage is sometimes perceived to be inflexibility but with the proper planning flexibility can be assured.”
Young says: “At the end of the day it is all about the Customer Requirements & the Return on Investment. Companies will spend to save.”
Peart felt that it was important to allow for sufficient testing, for migration as well as for the ‘ramp-up’ phase. He goes on to outline some simple rules (though not a definitive list) that he felt customers should consider when thinking about automation.
Only automate those processes which will give real benefit.
Create partnerships ‘Customer to Integrator’ with sub contractors.
Analyse and re-analyse data.
Ergonomic design for man / machine interfaces.
Allow for growth.
Understand fully the functionality of hardware and software.
Gavin Jones, chairman of ITS (UK), comments: “I’ve been further into robotics than a lot of people will go or will be bothered to go. I’ve had solutions that would marvel the world and I suppose Henry Ford invented cars that would marvel the world, but the world wasn’t ready for them and I feel very much the same way in automation.” He adds that there is a trend in the UK toward the customer turning away from expensive possible solutions _ trying to push costs down, but failing to achieve results. When speaking about the skills of automation companies to adapt to needs he says: “I can do everything but can’t find people who are willing to want to do it. So you eventually draw your horns in.”
Likening automation companies to a great actor, he goes on to observe how companies can play many parts even though those parts may not be in demand. And that the struggle comes in trying to fit to that demand.
So what about the future for automation, and will every warehouse eventually be ‘dark’? According to Jones, the answer is: ” No, sadly and thankfully. Sadly because there are many good automations that can be done, and I would like to have done some of them, and thankfully no because the future gives us the opportunity to design and innovate lower cost solutions and that’s what this game is all about.”
Young says: “The future will inevitably [be] towards more automation. Well designed and controlled mechanised environments are better than people at doing certain tasks – monotonous, repetitive, heavy work, all suit machinery very well.”
He adds that automated picking machines can achieve better Pallet or Roll cage ‘fill’ and ‘Load Stability’ than the average picker. He likens the automated process as a 3-D Tetris-like activity: “We have a year’s experience in this already and are now able to compare this operation with both manual and semi-automated systems and it is taking on all comers and winning.” Knights sums up the future well by saying: “The technology exists to have a totally automated solution. However, the costs of all automation have to be reasonable and justifiable. At this time the issues involved in picking large numbers of small items are such that full automation of such operations are not currently viable.”