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Defining complex vs complicated automation systems

Complicated vs. Complex Automation Systems

Ahmed Arif | 22 October 2015

At first glance, complicated and complex systems might seem the same, but a closer look at your business model and SKU seasonality will reveal which will work best for you.

Let me begin by stating that I am an engineer, not an English language expert, nor a Ph.D. Physicist, or super savvy blogger.  I specialize in material handling systems as they relate to solving a pain point for my clients or prospects.  So it begs the question, why in the world does an automation engineer want to define the difference between complicated and complex… I did just state that I am not an English language expert, so what gives, Ahmed? The reason I believe it is important to comprehend the difference between these two words is incredibly vital to understanding how to solve a solution with material handling automation.  On the surface, these two words can be synonyms of each other.  But if you dive a little deeper, you will see how they are incredibly different. Before I just give you the answer, I want to ask you a few questions about your business:

  • Is your business fairly stable, or do you experience seasonality?
  • If your industry or business model experiences seasonality, is it predictable or volatile?
  • Does your inventory change over often, or do the same SKUs populate your storage locations every year?
  • Do you have a wide variety of SKUs, or a high volume of less SKUs?  What is the velocity of your products, and is it common or diverse?

If you notice a theme with the questions above, you probably know where I am going with this article.  If you are scratching your head, hang on, we are getting there.  As a design engineer, far too many times I run across situations where not enough time and energy is spent analyzing how an organization’s business model looks day by day, week by week, month by month, year by year.

Consumer Demands

Now more than ever, businesses are seeing more intricate forecasts in their revenue generation, especially those organizations that focus on e-fulfillment or direct-to-consumer goods.  As we are seeing today, our society is expecting everything faster.  Technology is allowing the consumer access to information in seconds, and as a result, business are adapting to satisfy the immediate gratification urge.

If you are with an organization with a stable output, you have probably answered most of your process pain points with traditional automation systems.  If you are on the other end of the spectrum in terms of your output, your pain probably stems from trying to figure out how to get your product out the door regardless if it’s a busy or slow period.  These are complex business systems that aren’t necessarily straight forward, and could change in a moment based on market trends.

Defining Complicated vs. Complex

So if a complex system is not straight forward, what does that make a complicated system?  The fundamental difference between a complex and complicated system is how they are analyzed.  A complex system has multiple variables that can never be completely defined, where as a complicated system can be broken down into sub-parts and each component can be defined.

So to come full circle, if you have a process that is defined by limiting factors, and you need automation to move goods from point A to point B, this would be a complicated system.  You would know the automation system needs to move at a certain rate in order to achieve an overall throughput.  Think of a complicated system as an equation with a single unknown variable.  That variable changes the overall throughput by a distinct amount.  Think of a complex system as an equation with multiple unknown variables.  A single change to one variable may have disproportionate effects on the overall throughput. This is why it’s important to understand the difference between the two types of systems, and focus on not over simplifying a complex system as a complicated system

If you are still not completely satisfied in how these two types of systems differ, consider the following example. An organization primarily sells products to consumers online at an average of 1.2 SKUs per order today.  As seasons change, the average order becomes 1.9 SKUs per order; if this organization plans on investing in an automation system and plans on picking products to cases or totes on a conveyor system, the change in the average SKUs per order may drastically effect the design of the system. The modest bump from 1.2 to 1.9 for a brief period may cause the rate of cases being erected, conveyed, transferred, diverted, and ultimately shipped to exceed the capability of any of the various components within the system (consider limitations on traditional MHE equipment like a shoe sorter, 90 degree transfers, box erectors, etc.).

Solutions for Complex Automation Systems

It may seem complex systems are incredibly difficult to plan for, and while that is a true statement, it’s not all doom and gloom.  New technology with unbelievable flexibility and scalability are being invented every day for this very reason.  Goods-to-person systems are the latest products being developed to combat the undefinable complex systems.  Through the use of scalable models, picking robots and storage locations can be easily taken online or offline depending on the latest trends.

So in closing, consider how your business defines its outbound process, especially if you are planning a future material handling automation system.  Consider if your system is straight forward, or if there are outside influences that could rapidly change the rate at which goods needs to be picked for shipment.  Once you have defined what kind of system you need, an automation expert can help you define what kind of solution will provide you with the best bang for your buck.

Author: Ahmed Arif

As the Director of Sales for Bastian Solutions, Ahmed and his teams are responsible for helping our customers achieve their goals in manufacturing, distribution, warehouse management, and logistics. A graduate of Purdue University, Ahmed has been with Bastian Solutions for more than twelve years in a variety of roles. 


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