Automation is an effective way to increase productivity in your fulfillment center, but it still requires a careful approach to meet your needs and fit your budget. Depending on the size and demands on your warehouse and employees, different levels of automation may provide the most reliable returns and better productivity.
Streamlining your operations is about using the right tools in the right place, so you need an effective warehouse management system that will match your individual circumstances.
Use the Right Level of Automation for True Productivity
There are a number of factors that can impact your decision to automate material flows for order fulfillment. The initial investment, the seasonality of the vertical market, and the types of orders/pallets/products you deal with every day can determine which level of automation is right for you. Determining the level upfront is important, because under-investing upfront will lead to poor performance down the road, and any over investment could do financial harm before the necessary returns start coming in.
In some cases, you can see an immediate boost in productivity after installing simple conveyor systems. This allows the company to cut operational costs and provide a more ergonomic work environment. In other cases – those with a higher number of SKUs and a larger variety of product profiles – may need to look at higher levels of automation to maintain the accuracy and speed necessary to fulfill orders.
So how do you balance automation and manual labor to get the most productivity? Start by determining exactly where an automated system can remove mundane or ergonomically questionable tasks. In smaller companies with just a few products, a completely manual picking and replenishment system may be a valid option. As the company grows, though, and orders exceed 500 per day, you’ll likely need something else.
In a larger company, it’s possible to start by automating the replenishment process while leaving the picking to manual labor. You can remain productive and streamline many elements this way as long as orders are coming in at a controllable rate. On the other end of the spectrum, though, are automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) which provide high-speed storage, buffering, and sequencing of products while saving space and replacing forklifts and a lot of repetitive manual labor.
Is this the system for you? Consider the following case study:
You can get nearly 100% accuracy with these systems and set it for two- or three-shift operations. This will deliver the kind of productivity you need to deal with high levels of orders, a massive variety of SKUs, and heavy or unwieldy products that are difficult for people to handle.
Despite the amount of automation that is possible in the modern workplace and warehouse, there are still many tasks that are better suited to humans. It’s important to identify these areas early in the process and make sure you have the right people handling the job because these tasks often require a level of tactile skill and intellect that is hard to do with a computer.
Some common instances include loading and unloading different trailers and load configurations, separating and sorting mixed-SKU pallets for receiving, performing quality checks, and more.
Start by determining your needs for automation (based on business demands, labor capabilities, and future expansion), then determine what level will be the most productive option and the best investment overall. Then, once you determine which tasks are best to automate and which should be handled by an employee, you’ll be ready to run a far more efficient and profitable warehouse fulfillment center.