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Supply chains today face many challenges, but persistent worker shortages are one of the most prominent. While demand for fast, accurate, high-volume shipping is rising, many distribution centres struggle to find enough workers to meet it. This is a pressing issue, but automated order picking provides a solution. Here’s a closer look at picking automation and how it can help you alleviate these shortages.
The State of the Warehouse Worker Shortage
A 2021 survey found that 73% of light industrial businesses are experiencing difficulty attracting employees, whereas 26% reported this the year prior. This massive uptick in relatively little time leaves many organizations scrambling to find and retain talent in an increasingly competitive labour market. Additionally, they found that fulfilment volume has increased over the past year for more than half of these businesses. Warehouses must now pick and ship more orders despite having fewer workers to do so.
Rising e-commerce rates will exacerbate this shortage and demand. More businesses are pivoting to multichannel sales and more consumers are embracing online ordering. The “Amazon Effect” also makes people grow accustomed to fast shipping, further straining the industry’s already thinned workforce.
Automation Alleviates Worker Shortages
Automated order picking can help alleviate these shortages in a few ways. The most direct impact it has is reducing the amount of labour required to meet demands. If you have a few robots or automated systems to handle processes instead of people, you don’t need as many workers, reducing the impact of labour shortages.
It’s important to note that automated systems aren’t one-to-one replacements for human workers, either. In many cases, they can accomplish far more than people, especially in physical, repetitive workflows. Some automated layer-picking solutions can move 992 pounds at a time, completing the work of several workers simultaneously.
Automated systems are also less likely to make mistakes, reducing rework and lost time. With these solutions handling the bulk of your picking processes, your remaining workforce can focus on other tasks, boosting productivity. All of these benefits combine to make the worker shortage far less impactful.
Implementing Automated Order Picking
Of course, these benefits don’t come automatically. If you want to make the most of these automated systems, you must implement them effectively. Here’s how you can do that.
1. Review Order Picking Processes and Shortcomings
The first step to proper implementation is reviewing your picking system. Technology adoption should always be a solution to an issue, not something you embrace for its novelty – so it’s important to understand your current shortcomings. You’ll then be able to see where to apply automation for the biggest improvement.
Transportation is a common inefficiency in these processes. Walking between item locations can account for half of all picking time. If you see the same issue in your warehouse, automated material movers may be the ideal solution. Alternatively, if most inefficiencies come from errors, an automated warehouse management system or pick-to-light solution may be best.
Be sure to look at specific workflows, too. Picking some item types or in some areas of the warehouse may be more inefficient or inaccurate than others. Look for these to help create relevant automation goals.
2. Assess Available Technologies
Once you know where and why you need automation, you’ll be able to tell which features you need. Look through what kinds of automated solutions are available at the moment, keeping your specific needs in mind.
It’s also important to consider the physical limitations of your warehouse. Some systems may provide the movement you need but can’t fit in the areas of the facility where you need them the most. Similarly, you should keep your budgetary constraints in mind and compare prices from multiple vendors.
Remember that physical robots aren’t the only way to address the worker shortage with automation. Warehouse management systems (WMS) can automate inventory tracking and scheduling, freeing employees to focus on the actual picking process. Consider how different technologies could impact your largest inefficiencies to find the best solution for your needs.
3. Start Small
When you’ve decided on a specific solution, it’s time to implement it. While it may be tempting to apply it wherever possible for maximum improvements, it’s typically best to start small before scaling up.
Cost concerns are the most common barrier to automation in many enterprises, with 35% of organizations saying the immediate returns aren’t attractive enough. While robotic solutions have steadily become more affordable, they’re still expensive and implementing them can be challenging. The answer is to apply it in just one or two workflows initially, then learn from that experience to optimize new automation projects.
Start with the workflow that can gain the most from automation, which will produce the most significant ROI. After implementing it, monitor the process carefully and record your findings. You can then learn from what worked well and what didn’t to minimize obstacles in future expansions.
4. Ensure Security
Security is an easily overlookable but critical step in automating order picking. Many new robotic solutions feature internet of things (IoT) connectivity or collect digital data. While these features are helpful, they can introduce cybersecurity risks, so it’s important to update security measures with these new technologies in mind.
Cybercrime against all businesses, even those in industrial sectors, is rising. If you don’t address these risks, automation could introduce vulnerabilities that outweigh its benefits.
Some important measures include training all employees in basic cybersecurity, encrypting data storage and transmission, changing default passwords, and segmenting networks to keep IoT devices separate from other endpoints. Penetration testing can reveal any vulnerabilities and mitigation measures in your facility, too.
5. Monitor KPIs and Adjust Accordingly
Finally, it’s important to set relevant key performance indicators (KPIs) and goals to monitor your automation project’s success. The lack of a clear vision is the second-largest obstacle to scaling automation, so setting and measuring benchmarks can help avoid common failures.
Determine what you want from your robotics solution to determine your benchmarks and relevant KPIs. Then, measure where you stand now in relation to these goals to set a standard for comparison. After a set period of using the new system, measure these KPIs again to see what changed.
Both successes and failures can be helpful. If you fall short on any KPIs, adjust your approach in that area with future projects. Similarly, the areas where you succeed can reveal how to improve other processes.
Automation Is the Future
While automation won’t end labour shortages, it makes them less impactful. You can then meet rising demand despite having fewer employees. As these shortages grow, automation will become a necessity, not just an advantage. Investing in these systems now can ensure success in the future.