Global Material Handling System Integrators

Labor Management’s Role in Automation



In the world of warehousing and distribution, there is a general belief that the concepts of labor management and automation have an inverse relationship. Generally, the higher the presence of one equates to less of the other. While I would agree with this theory the majority of the time, it doesn’t mean that one becomes more or less important than the other. Although less labor is typically required for an automated system like an AutoStore or a Perfect Pick, this doesn’t make managing the quality of the remaining labor any less critical. I would even speculate that it becomes even more critical, especially since this remaining labor plays a crucial role in the success of an automation initiative.

It’s no surprise that a frequent driver for many companies looking to incorporate automation into their operation is the ability to recoup the hefty upfront costs through an overall reduction in labor. It’s been my experience that a lot of attention is typically paid to ensure the system can hit a specific throughput but not enough is paid to ensure human operators hold up their end of the deal. There are a number of labor management criteria that I believe are key to a successful automation project. Below are my top five labor areas of focus that complement an automation initiative.

Process Definition & Best Methods Development

Early in the system design phase, it is critical to understand, in detail, the steps that must be taken by the operator. This includes everything from the obtaining and placing of a piece to the processes not typically called out in standard work documents like re-handling of pieces, tossing trash, etc. Once everything has been accounted for, the processes should be analyzed so best methods can be developed. These can be as little as reducing the number of keystrokes to removing entire steps that aren’t adding value. The goal here is to optimize all processes and further increase system throughput.*

*It’s important to garner feedback from the associates on the floor during this stage.

Engineered Labor Standards Development

Next, in order to understand a realistic return on investment, accurate labor requirements need to be calculated. After all processes have been analyzed and best methods have been created, engineered labor standards can be developed. A common method is utilizing a predetermined motion time system like Maynard Operation Sequence Technique (MOST) or Master Standard Data (MSD). These standards should also include an allowance for personal, fatigue and other unavoidable delays. It’s only after this step has been completed and validated that the true productivity can be understood.

Communication and Training

Once processes have been finalized, any changes should be communicated to the associates on the floor and formal training should take place. Proper communication and training are some of the most overlooked aspects of successful automation projects, despite being one of the most critical. They’re the final steps before processes will be performed in a live production environment, so it’s imperative all steps are understood and performed correctly.

Maintenance & Follow-Up

With any labor management program, things can occasionally change over time. As processes and order profiles adjust, so should the steps above. It’s recommended that team members be assigned responsibilities to ensure all facets of maintaining the program are covered.

Tracking Against Goals

The final step is to monitor performance and take action, as needed. Low performers require counseling and, if needed, corrective action. Alternatively, high performers deserve recognition for going above and beyond. Incentives can also be a good way to reward high performers and help shift the overall performance curve upward. On a larger scale, the overall labor requirements should be tracked against the initially calculated return on system investment. This will be the true indicator of whether project financial goals were met.

Although these steps don’t encompass all aspects of a labor management program, I believe they are a few of the most important. Incorporating these steps into an automated system implementation will help to ensure the labor component of the operation is best prepared to meet the requirements of the system design. While labor management should always play an important role in any operation, it’s critical to not lose sight of its importance as the industry moves further down the path of automation.

Author: Chris Bratten

Chris is a Sr. Logistics Consultant with Bastian’s Software team based in Louisville, KY. He has a BSME from Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and a MSME from Purdue University. Since starting with Bastian in 2005 Chris has developed and maintained strong relationships with his clients; designing solutions and working through implementations. He has also helped develop Bastian’s ExactaBEV WES suite, focused on wine & spirits distribution.


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