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Five Signs It’s Time to Bolster Your Supply Chain with Warehouse Automation

Facilities that rely on manual product handling are limited by how quickly and accurately human workers can do these tasks. © Gorodenkoff – stock.adobe.com

By: Derek Rickard, Contributor

Just a few years ago, the average consumer didn’t think much about the supply chain. They’d go shopping in store or online to find what they wanted and deal with occasional frustrations, like out-of-stocks and shipping delays around the holidays. But by and large, access to the products they needed was simply a given. The pandemic changed all that. Major disruptions—like supply shortages, shipping bottlenecks, unpredictable demand and ongoing labor shortages—have brought global supply chain issues to the front and center for businesses and consumers alike. Companies at every level are scrambling to keep products moving and customers satisfied.

Unfortunately, it seems these supply chain issues are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Rather than just applying quick fixes, now is the perfect time to invest in long-term, sustainable solutions for stronger, more flexible, and resilient supply chains. So, whether it’s business growth, market changes, or even the likes of a global pandemic, companies must be ready to adapt to anything ahead, especially in the areas of warehousing and distribution.

Why warehousing and distribution needs a boost

Ideally, products move through warehouses or distribution centers as quickly and efficiently as possible. Everyone gets their orders on time, and everyone is happy. But order fulfillment can easily get derailed by internal challenges, as well as external pressures. And those delays mean empty store shelves and unhappy customers downstream.

Facilities that rely on manual product handling are particularly at risk. In a manual setup, everything depends on employees picking and preparing orders by hand. Even during the best of times, there’s a limit to how quickly and accurately human workers can do these tasks.

That’s why more and more companies are implementing warehouse automation. Robotic material handling solutions are ideal for optimizing order fulfillment. These systems can take over individual stages of the fulfillment process, or can even automate everything, from goods receiving, storage and buffering, to picking, palletizing, loading and dispatch.

Is it time for you to automate?

Every facility is unique. But some warehousing challenges are common across the board—and often lead companies to automate.  If any of these scenarios sound all too familiar, it may be time for you to make the leap:

1. You’re struggling to hire and retain enough warehouse staff:

Labor shortages have been prevalent in the warehousing sector for a while, as the older generation gradually retires, and young jobseekers show declining interest in filling their shoes. Now the gap has grown wider than ever, putting severe strain on facilities that rely on manual labor.

Fortunately, automation can fill the gaps. Robotic systems can take over labor-intensive product handling tasks, fulfilling orders 24/7 with minimal human involvement. Automation can shift employees away from dangerous, physically demanding roles and take on new roles operating and supervising the automated equipment, with better working condition. One top of improving the working environment for your staff, these types of roles may even help you better attract new jobseekers.

2. Your customers—or products—call for increasingly fast fulfillment:

Today’s customers have become accustomed to getting their orders quickly, and they still expect this convenience despite supply chain issues. Fast fulfillment puts increased pressure on your warehousing and distribution operations. And it’s not only your customers that demand short lead times. If you handle fresh produce, dairy products, or baked goods, for instance, you must meet very short lead times to maximize shelf life and freshness. With automation handling order fulfillment through high speed and precision, your products can spend less time in the warehouse and get to the customers’ hands or store shelf much sooner. Notably, today’s automated solutions can integrate storage and order picking functions into a single, seamless system, which enables rapid, end-to-end handling for faster fulfillment than ever before.

3. You’re running out of storage space for growing SKU numbers

Another customer demand that’s putting big pressure on warehouses? Expectations for product variety. Facilities now have to store more SKU numbers than ever in order to offer variation, like different sizes, colors, flavors and packaging types. And this trend is sure to expand in the future.

SKU proliferation is causing traditional warehouses to run out of space. By automating, you can accommodate SKU growth and eliminate expensive, space-wasting shelving systems altogether. Look for an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) that utilizes high-density, floor-based storage. Gantry robots access products from overhead, quickly and accurately retrieving any SKU needed for fulfillment. This type of setup uses up to 50% less space than traditional storage. And that’s not to mention the added benefit of easy cleaning and the cost savings that come from eliminating all those aisles of racks and shelving. You’ll be able handle SKUs more in your existing facility footprint, with none of the growing pains.

4. You’re falling behind during seasonal peaks and unexpected demand spikes:

Demand fluctuations are par for the course in distribution, with some spikes and dips predictable to an extent, because of seasonal surges. On the other hand, some demand changes are impossible to anticipate. For example, we all saw how quickly supply and demand fell out of balance during the onset of COVID-19. Demand spiked wildly for essential goods, while dropping drastically in other areas. It’s even harder to adapt to this kind of unpredictable changes.

The right automated system can ensure your warehouse is prepared for the expected and unexpected. The key is to invest in a modular solution— a system that utilizes standardized, pre-engineered cells of automation. With this type of flexible solution, you can quickly scale up your levels of automation as needed. You’ll be able to ramp up fulfillment, accommodate more high-demand products and meet changes in demand: all without disrupting ongoing operations.

5. You’re gearing up for growth

Of course, preparing for the future isn’t all about looming problems. It’s also about business growth! To grow your business and your profits, you’ll need the capacity to handle more orders and satisfy more customers—all in the most efficient way possible.

An automated warehouse is up to six times more efficient than its manual counterpart. And equipped with the type of flexible, modular solution mentioned above, you won’t have to worry about outgrowing the capacity of your system. A modular solution will scale with your business, providing the speed and efficiency you need for many years to come.

Some innovative companies are supporting growing demand by building automated micro fulfillment centers. These miniature, yet power-packed facilities are strategically positioned in regions near high demand, reducing the costs and time associated with last mile delivery. It’s a great way to expand your distribution network and bring your products to more customers, while staying profitable.

In the long run, traditional warehouses that rely on manual product handling just aren’t going to be able to keep up with the pack. Whether you’re dealing with the many modern supply chain challenges or you have your eyes set on business growth, automation is the perfect foundation for a successful future. WMHS

Derek Rickard serves as Director of Sales at Cimcorp (www.cimcorp.com), where he leads the sales team in developing robotic order fulfillment solutions designed to meet each customer’s warehousing needs. With 20+ years of supply chain experience, Rickard has worked on many of the first fully automated robotic picking systems in North America, with some of the largest exceeding 1 million cases per week.

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