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Gain‌ ‌a‌ ‌Competitive‌ ‌Edge‌ ‌With‌ ‌Warehouse‌ ‌ Automation‌

EmilyNewton
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Today’s warehouses are fast-moving environments consisting of enormous quantities of products, many of which are eventually bound for worldwide destinations. Company leaders are under increasing pressure, especially since many customers expect to receive their items in a few days at most.

COVID-19 added more complications, especially when people had to take off work after becoming ill. Social distancing requirements also reduced the number of people who could be on a shift at any time. However, warehouse automation allows companies to overcome these challenges and more.

Offer Customers More Options

Investing in warehouse automation is a practical way for companies to provide additional choices for their customers. For example, Nestlé recently opened a new distribution center that heavily features automation, including advanced robotics. The system includes an automated monorail that brings parcels into the building, where cranes then stack them. Next, each pallet gets broken down into smaller units for more convenient storage. This setup also allows customers to specify what they want in their orders.

James Sharples is the United Kingdom managing director of Swisslog Automation Logistics, which provided the warehouse with the necessary technology. He explained, “One of the major benefits of this automation is its ability to make up bespoke orders. For example, a customer may not want to order a whole pallet of Kit Kats. It might instead want a mixed selection of products — known as a rainbow pallet.”

Warehouse automation can also extend to giving customers more options for checking order statuses. Some platforms give people up-to-the-minute details, such as immediately providing someone with a tracking number when their products leave the warehouse. If a person can use a chatbot to verify the order status rather than making a phone call or typing an email, they’re more likely to have a better experience.

Eliminate Productivity Bottlenecks

Anything from a poor warehouse layout to inadequate training could mean a worker has difficulty reaching top productivity levels. However, automation can supplement human efforts,  letting people overcome things that previously slowed them down.

In one case, evo, an outdoor goods company, began struggling with the rising numbers of online orders, especially as it broadened its original internet-only approach and opened a few physical stores. Increased demand during the brand’s peak season and throughout the pandemic made leaders realize the company’s warehouse could not exceed its current productivity levels without automation.

They chose a solution involving 10 mobile robots that complemented the company’s existing warehouse management system (WMS). They reduced employee walking time since the machines moved independently through the warehouse to pick up or deposit goods. There was also a visual system that showed the products to pick, which further accelerated task times.

When workers used manually operated carts while picking items, their top rates averaged 35 units per hour. However, some employees reached 125 units per hour with the mobile robots. That increase allowed evo to keep up with its increasing order volumes without putting workers under additional strain that could cause a higher injury rate.

Raise Warehouse Output

Figuring out how to transport materials around warehouses more efficiently is a vital part of becoming more competitive. For example, investing in the right material handling equipment can improve workflows by moving goods to the correct places quickly. Costs typically decrease for the company because the facility becomes more efficient while error rates simultaneously decrease.

In one recent example, Japanese company SB Logistics pursued automation to reduce the overall number of tasks for people to do. The facility’s shipping sorter handles 5,000 pieces per hour, and the building holds approximately 2 million items.

Besides investing in automated storage and conveyor systems, the warehouse has robots that pick the merchandise. However, implementing those machines required a thoughtful process. That’s because Japanese consumers don’t tolerate packaging dents or other aesthetic issues that people elsewhere often overlook if the item inside functions as expected. Thus, it was crucial to ensure the bots had a gentle touch when handling the products.

However, all these automation pursuits have paid off in helping the company deal with high volumes of products without slowdowns. If a person places an order before 7:59 a.m, they’ll receive it the same day if dispatched to any Tokyo address.

Receive Warnings of Potential Issues

Getting better visibility of all warehouse operations can bring a competitive advantage because it reduces the chances of managers getting caught off-guard by a preventable issue. Some leading warehouses establish preventive maintenance strategies for pieces of critical equipment. Smart sensors automatically gather performance data and flag unusual characteristics that could signal impending failures.

Equipment outages can quickly become extremely costly and cause customers to lose trust in a company’s reliability. Using an automatic data collection system allows decision-makers to receive insights they may otherwise miss. These new informational tidbits span beyond equipment outages, too.

For example, supermarket chain Schnucks uses a rolling robot to capture inventory data for approximately 35,000 items two to three times per day. That information then goes into an automatically generated inventory pull list that tells workers which products to grab from the stockroom before replenishing the shelves.

The workers used to do that job manually, which took hours. As a result, shelves often stayed empty for too long. Automating the first step in the process leads to better efficiency that keeps the shelves full for a larger percentage of time.

Getting data about the most in-demand items helps people figure out when to reorder or replenish them. There are fewer out-of-stock incidents that could upset customers and ultimately make them choose to do business elsewhere.

Assess What Better Competitiveness Means for Your Business

There’s no single way to define increased competitiveness for your warehouse. The answer primarily depends on what current struggles have cropped up and what your future goals are. Do you want to ramp up operations to increase the number of daily orders fulfilled? Perhaps you want to reduce instances of your facility not having the products customers want most.

After narrowing down your goals, investigate how automation could help most. It’s also useful to choose relevant metrics that you’ll track to see whether the new processes achieve the desired effects. Warehouse automation won’t pay off overnight, but if you think about implementing it practically, your company will likely get the desired results.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over three years experience writing articles for the tech and industrial sectors. Subscribe to the Revolutionized newsletter for more content from Emily at https://revolutionized.com/subscribe/

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