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Not Your Father’s Automation

Better, cheaper and easier than ever, the sky is the limit today for improvement through automation.

Contributed by: MHI’s Solutions Community

Automated storage and retrieval systems can improve material flow and enhance speed, accuracy and productivity. © navintar –

It used to be that automation was reserved for the big boys—those deep pocketed corporations with massive distribution centers that could afford the latest and greatest equipment. The smaller and mid-sized distribution centers were generally left out in the cold, unable to afford the efficiencies that automation could provide. Today, however, that landscape is changing.

“With the labor shortage and a big increase in wages for DC workers, suddenly automation makes sense for many more companies,” said Bill Denbigh, Vice President of Product Marketing for Tecsys. “Automation that might not have looked like a good prospect in the past now sounds like a good idea.”

Adding to the payoff is ever increasing productivity demands, the rise of ecommerce and customer expectations of same-day delivery. Companies need alternatives to manual handling solutions that increase speed, accuracy and productivity.

Rupesh Narkar, Director of Sales at Swisslog Logistics Automation, agrees, and adds that scalable solutions provide for more options for companies of all sizes. “In the previous decade, the approach towards automation was ‘one size fits all,’ hence only large organizations thought of implementing automation,” he explained. “This has significantly changed in past few years. Automation solutions are now more specific to each industry, segment, or even specific challenges. This is all possible due to the modular, scalable and flexible nature of new concepts in automation solutions”

As a result, Narkar says small-, mid- and large-scale companies have plenty of options to implement automation solutions specific to a certain challenge, or to apply it over complete operations. “Today’s automation solutions are by nature modular and highly scalable; even flexible,” said Narkar. “Companies implement small systems on a pilot basis, and then up- or down-scale as their business needs change. Many have even utilized the flexibility to move or relocate as their operations strategy changes, making use of the same solution, just re-arranged in the new setup.”

How automation solutions play out

With automation opening up to a wider customer base, how it is implemented and used varies from company to company. “The old idea of throwing out the old and bringing in the new isn’t the rule any longer. It’s often augmenting or optimizing what you have,” said Denbigh.

For instance, a customer might start small by adding in a carousel or a vertical lift module. “We’re seeing many organizations who say they have enough fat in the processes and that if they add some automation, they can drive enough value to negate the need for hardware automation,” said Denbigh. “The first layer of automation projects is generally the automation of processes—really, software automation.”

Narkar said that digitalization of existing processes can provide big payback. “Intelligent, reactive, data-drive and flexible software forms the backbone of digitalization. This is the bridge that connects existing processes to automation.”

There’s also a role for automated vehicles in these scenarios. From Narkar’s perspective, they help put control back into processes. “Technology like ASRS, AGVs and AMRs are improving material flow and delivering significant improvement to speed, accuracy and productivity,” he explained. “These solutions also deploy a WMS to effectively monitor and control each step in the process.”

Denbigh adds that tools like AI-based picking, slotting and other tasks provide for a low-risk solution. “The infrastructure requirements are almost zero,” he said. “Understand your problem, find the data and add the piece in the middle to optimize the heck out of machine learning. You’ll get the most of what you already have in place.”

While taking the step to automate can feel overwhelming, with today’s incremental options and lower costs, it’s well worth the investment of time and resources. Working with automation solution providers, you can determine your requirements and tailor solutions specific to your operations. “Automation can transform your warehouse into a facility that does exactly what you want when you want,” said Narkar. “Today, warehouse operators are aiming to reach higher capacities in terms of better space utilization, higher productivity in terms of maximum goods inbound/outbound and improved efficiency in terms of better resource utilization.”

Regardless, the old adage of not automating for automation’s sake still holds true. “Just automating without alignment to long-term strategy can result in diminished returns,” reminded Narkar. “You must correctly identify the current problems, think through end-to-end processes and then look at automation for solutions. The technology, in the form of intelligent warehouse management software and flexible automation, is available today and can help create a competitive advantage by reducing costs, increasing throughput and responding faster to changes in market demand.” WMHS

Connect with the members of the MHI Solutions Community — including suppliers, integrators, consultants, media, academia and users — who collaborate on solutions worldwide and in virtually every major manufacturing and distribution sector. They represent the industry’s thought leaders on automation, software, hardware, equipment and services that support a fully integrated supply chain.

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