Warehouse automation and robotics – where to from here?
Automated robots have been used for years to handle simple repetitive tasks and do the heavy lifting in warehouses. The rapid growth in e-commerce in 2020 has driven the quest for more extensive robotic solutions to solve complex picking, packing, retrieval and storage requirements. Investment in robotics such as drones and automated guided vehicles (AGV) was already a strategy of many large organizations before the pandemic hit.
Recent changes in customer buying behaviour are causing companies to re-think how best to service their customers, both safely and profitably. If online sales continue to grow at the current level, some level of automation will no longer be optional. Companies must expect to invest in software solutions to speed up administrative processes as well as spending on new types of conveyors and innovations such as robotic picking systems.
What is Robotic Process Automation (RPA)?
RPA is the application of software solutions to automate rule-based and repeatable tasks that are traditionally carried out by humans. It sounds futuristic to talk about the application of Artificial intelligence (AI) and Internet of Things (IoT) to warehouse automation, but it is now a reality. RPA has the effect of speeding up processes, delivering reductions in labour costs as well as eliminating errors. Robots capture data and carry out actions just like humans do. They interpret, respond and communicate with other systems to perform a variety of repetitive tasks on a 24/7 basis. The adoption of RPA is growing, partially due to continued social distancing needs and economic pressures. Automation frees up employees to concentrate on more complex tasks that create value for the business.
The benefits of RPA
According to PwC, the benefits of RPA are
- The technology costs approximately one-third of an outsourced employee and around 10% of an onsite employee.
- Process time is reduced by up to 90% – and error rates to almost nil.
- Risk and control management are strengthened, and customer advocacy, revenue and retention improved.
- Employees are freed up to focus on more valuable activities such as data interpretation, decision making support, customer service and business development.
- RPA software is a non-intrusive technology that doesn’t require an overhaul of your legacy systems and can be integrated into your current ERP and business applications with relative ease.
The case for automation
Improving efficiencies and reducing the cost of human resources are the main reasons to automate. More than 50% of an average distribution centre’s (DC’s) labour force is involved in picking, packing, and shipping customer orders. Fully automated pallet shuttle systems using cranes can manage all types of storage and retrieval. Robotic solutions can fully automate the picking process picking and placing products from a source into a target bin or carton.
Adopting automated solutions
It is important to find the right balance of suitable and affordable technologies and the right level of human resources, whatever your business. Budget is a major consideration. Besides RPAs which are used extensively in large distribution operations, some innovative tech-based solutions are fast becoming more affordable and within the reach of small and medium-sized companies:
- AGVs can replace forklifts and are practical in small distribution centres. Their cost is continuing to decrease.
- Cloud-based software solutions are increasing productivity through on-line real-time access to user-friendly systems. These applications reduce complexity and cut down on I.T. maintenance costs.
- Scanner-carrying drones increase the speed and accuracy of stock control by navigating warehouse shelves and taking automatic stock counts.
- Devices such as mobile phones, wearables, sensors and radio-frequency identification tags (RFID) are already used in many warehouses. Communication between IoT devices reduces human error and provides visibility of order fulfilment.
Where to start? Begin by looking for high-volume repetitive processes in your organization that take up time you could be spending on more valuable activities. Implementing automated solutions in your business is a process that requires you to identify, access, and compare the benefits of the best tools available, whatever your current situation and budget.
The Supply Chain Consulting Group helps companies with automation projects. With continuing pressure on warehouse productivity, the case for warehouse automation and mechanisation continues to increase.