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Resilience For Tomorrow: How to Future-Proof Your Warehouse Operations

By: Derek Rickard, Contributor

The automation implemented by Kwik Trip enables the company to process orders for 53,000 outbound trays of fresh baked goods per day. Image courtesy of Cimcorp

Warehouses and distribution centers are no stranger to fluctuations in consumer demand and business needs. After all, nearly every industry experiences seasonal peaks when order volumes skyrocket and facilities must scale up their workforce to keep products flowing out the door. Yet the events of the past year have highlighted just how unpredictable the future can be—and just how critical flexibility is for resilience. 

When sudden market shifts or external disruptions affect their business, companies need to be able to adapt accordingly to meet demand, maintain efficiency and provide a high level of service quality for their customers. But this is difficult for traditional warehouses that still rely on manual order picking. Their ability to keep up all comes down to the speed, physical endurance and availability of employees (which may be unsustainable in times of disruption, given the ergonomic risks and labor shortages prevalent even in the best of times). 

So, in this article we’ll examine innovative ways to gain flexibility to face both the expected and unexpected, ensuring your warehouse can run at its best no matter what tomorrow may hold.   

Invest In Modular, Scalable Automation 

One of the best ways to build resilience is by incorporating warehouse automation. Today’s robotic order picking systems can take on the majority of product handling operations, receiving, storing and retrieving products much faster than humanly possible for a facility that’s six times more efficient than its manual counterpart. These systems can run 24/7 with minimal human involvement, eliminating the need for temporary staffing and alleviating existing employees from bearing the physical brunt of order volumes spikes. 

When investing in automation, some may think it’s necessary to build a solution up front that can meet long-term goals as well accommodate any unpredictable scenario that could affect business in the future. However, this can leave you overwhelmed with far-out projections and analysis, slowing down the design and implementation process altogether. 

A far better approach is to look for systems that are flexible and modular in design. This allows you to streamline development by focusing on automating the processes that will meet your present needs and provide the biggest and quickest return on your investment. You can then increase the levels of automation as necessary in the future, without interrupting operations. 

To fast-track implementation, also consider standardized solutions that can easily fit into your existing facility. Standardized equipment, such as that of a modular solution, allows you to utilize a pre-engineered cell of automation that reduces lead times, optimizes space utilization and can easily be repeatable as your business grows.  

Scale With Speed Through Micro-Fulfillment

An important part of resilience in distribution is not only scaling operations, but also doing so quickly. One strategy gaining popularity is micro-fulfillment, where “mini warehouses” are set up in a matter of weeks in regions near high demand. These highly automated micro-fulfillment centers offer benefits such as:

  • A smaller, more flexible footprint: Compact enough to squeeze into tight urban industrial buildings or even fit in the back of brick-and-mortar stores, micro-fulfillment centers require minimal investment in real-estate space and construction costs.  
  • Lower automation costs: Their small size make micro-fulfillment centers far less expensive to automate than their larger counterparts.
  • Shorter lead times: Strategically located in major metropolitan areas, micro-fulfillment centers position products closer to consumers to reduce the time and costs involved in last-mile delivery. 

Think smart with a Warehouse Control System

To intelligently adapt operations when disruption comes your way, you need ready access to data and robust control over your automated material handling system. In other words, you need a Warehouse Control System (WCS)—what you could imagine as a bridge that brings data, analytics and robotics together to connect the digital and physical world.  

A WCS receives and stores real-time data transmitted by sensors on your robotic equipment, and assesses information on inventory, order lines, priorities and deadlines to orchestrate everything from individual robot movements to the entire flow of the warehouse (adapting of course to demand surges or extremely tight lead times). 

With historical data stored in a WCS, your warehouse managers can also run analyses to find opportunities for future improvements. For example, they can eliminate process inefficiencies according to evaluated facility performance, preemptively detect if a system needs maintenance to ensure maximum uptime, and also determine when to scale up the number of robots to accommodate business fluctuations. Overall, a WCS elevates an automated warehouse to a smart warehouse.   

Kwik Trip’s recipe for resilience 

A great example of automation-enabled resilience comes from Kwik Trip, a family-owned and operated chain of convenient stores founded in 1965. With more than 700 locations throughout the Midwestern U.S. today, Kwik Trip’s own bakery produces and delivers 25 to 30 different types of fresh baked goods to its stores each day.

To meeting growing demand for these baked goods, Kwik Trip opened a new 200,000-square-foot baking facility in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in the fall of 2018. This state-of-the-art facility leverages automated systems to handle end-to-end operations in a well-orchestrated, integrated fashion. In the 87,000-square-foot warehousing section of the facility, Kwik Trip implemented a space-saving, high-density automated solution that combines buffer storage and order picking into one seamless operation. The solution rapidly manages 80,000 trays of fast-moving bakery products and processes orders for 53,000 outbound trays to Kwik Trip stores, within 20 hours each day. When orders come in, that data is transferred to a WCS, which then directs the robotic system to pick the orders based on store and route. This ensures that the orders are picked with 100% accuracy and that the company follows a first-in-first-out (FIFO) inventory management model for optimal product freshness. 

The modular design of Kwik Trip’s system proved invaluable at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic when the company saw consumer demand and output nearly triple in a single week. While Kwik Trip would have struggled to handle this surge with its previous manual setup, automation enabled the La Crosse facility to maintain product flow and order accuracy as usual.  

Like Kwik Trip, companies can take proactive action to future-proof their warehousing operations and order fulfillment processes. While no one can predict the future, the technologies and strategies you implement today can help you mitigate the risks of the unknown and ensure your products continue to flow efficiently and effectively for years to come. WMHS

Derek Rickard serves as Director of Sales at Cimcorp, 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 (www.cimcorp.com).

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