Tackling Labor Shortage and Seasonal Peaks Through Automation

Derek Rickard, ‎Distribution Systems Sales Manager, ‎Cimcorp

Derek Rickard, ‎Distribution Systems Sales Manager, ‎Cimcorp

Companies today are dealing with significant shortages in warehouse labor, as older members of the workforce begin to retire and the younger generation seems less enthusiastic about careers in distribution. These year-round shortages are felt especially hard during a business’ peak period—when demand reaches seasonal highs and orders pour into the warehouse.

During peak seasons, facilities reliant on manual operations can often struggle to keep up with the heightened order volume. Available staff have to scramble up and down aisles and handpick products, which can pose major health and safety risks, with bending and lifting heavy loads. Many organizations will hire seasonal staff to help, but this tends to create new challenges, like added costs and providing adequate training in a short time period. All of this comes on top of year-round challenges in expanding inventories and consumer demand for faster, accurate deliveries.

If your manual warehouse or distribution center is feeling the strain of the labor shortage crisis, you can look instead to automated technologies. Automation can help not only fill the gaps left by a shorthanded workforce, but also enable faster, more cost-efficient operations. Consider these four benefits:

  1. Improved Space Utilization

Many of today’s warehouses are running out of space to store all of their products, as manufacturing sites boost production numbers to meet demand and companies offer new, seasonal offerings to the market. Facilities with shrinking storage space can consider automated solutions that use high-density storage areas, which can store more products while using up to 50% less space.

One effective approach is floor-based storage, where products are stacked on the warehouse floor and retrieved from above. This eliminates the need for large conveyor sequencers and for staff to travel around space-consuming aisles.

  1. Reduced Seasonal Labor Requirements

During a peak season, many warehouses will try to double their workforce in anticipation of the influx of orders, hiring practically anyone who walks through the door. There’s often not enough effort placed on vetting and training seasonal staff, which creates issues and bottlenecks when it comes time to fill orders. Sometimes it can be difficult to even find candidates, due to competition for seasonal staff from nearby facilities. For example, companies such as Amazon will hire upwards of 120,000 employees from the job market during a peak season.

With a scalable, automated solution, warehouses can minimize their amount of required seasonal labor and leverage their automated systems to get through difficult peaks. By design, these systems can work faster and longer than warehouse staff, with checks and balances done through integrated software—thereby ensuring order accuracy.

  1. Automation can benefit warehouse employees by helping them complete tasks with greater ease and improving overall working conditions. (photo courtesy of Cimcorp)

    Better Conditions for Current Employees

Automation can benefit warehouse employees by helping them complete tasks with greater ease and improving their overall working conditions. Namely, companies can reallocate their staff to handle products that are not suitable for automation or have special handling requirements.

Because employees are no longer responsible for manually picking and fulfilling every order in the warehouse, it frees them up for more sophisticated tasks. Further, it improves safety by reducing the amount of strenuous activity required during work hours. So rather than automation eliminating jobs–a common fear among warehouse staff–it actually makes them easier, which can be appealing to young jobseekers.

  1. Lowered Labor Costs

The need to double the warehouse workforce during peak periods adds major expenses, given the wages, benefits and financial obligations for each additional employee. Plus, some warehouses will pay extra for staff to work overtime just to keep operations flowing. Others will add an overnight shift, so they end up paying around the clock.

Since automation minimizes the number of seasonal staff needed, companies can save big in labor costs. Moreover, these systems can run 24/7, without any extra investment. Therefore, employees don’t need to work overtime hours or overnights. These cost savings can add up quickly, helping companies to realize a return on their investment in automation.

Given the benefits discussed above, many warehousing and distribution executives may still be apprehensive to automate, due to the notion that it would be an expensive project to take on. It does not have to be. Look to a solutions provider that can assess your facility, products and processes. They can tell you what parts of your warehouse should be automated or left manual, considering both costs and operational benefits. With the right mix of automation and manual handling, you can mitigate the labor shortage crisis and optimize material flow both year-round and during seasonal peaks. WMHS

Click here for more insight on the labor shortage crisis, including the types of automated systems to consider based on your warehousing needs.