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Automated Warehouse: A simple guide

Article by Megan Gee

Can automation run your warehouse?

It’s a question on the minds of business owners across the UK, and opinion is still very much divided.

It’s staggering in 2022 that 80% of business are still using no form of warehouse automation – with a lack of understanding and belief that risk and expense is too great creating barriers. The good news? Automation investment is on the rise – with more organisations realising the operational benefits which can be achieved.

The simple fact is, robotic and AI technology working alongside humans is no longer a concept that belongs only in a sci-movie. For the warehousing industry, it’s a reality, and it won’t be long before fully autonomous factories become the norm, creating new opportunities for programmers, technicians, engineers and more.

We’re here to discuss what warehouse automation is, what it looks like, as well as everything you might need to know before implementing it into your own business.

  1. What is an automated warehouse?
  2. How much does it cost to automate a warehouse?
  3. How does automation affect the layout of a warehouse?
  4. Are people still needed in a automated warehouse?
  5. Can automated warehouses increase efficiency?
  6. How can you automate your warehouse?

What is an automated warehouse?

An automated warehouse is the process of automating workflows in, around, and outside of a warehouse.

Whether it’s physical and robotic automation, or a piece of software replacing manual jobs, automated warehouses encompasses a host of different technologies. This can range from handheld devices, warehouse management systems (WMS), to automated mobile robots (AMRs) and container transport units (CTUs). You can find out more on different types of warehouse automation here.

TYPES OF WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION

Combine these types of technologies and you’re left with a connected network that works together, just as humans do. The main difference? Rather than a single piece of automation performing each step of a process, different machines will work on their own before connecting with other software or robotic elements to start the next step of the process. Exactly the same method you might find in a labour-intensive warehouse, the key difference being automation will work without stopping, with little to no risk, and without additional costs.

How much does it cost to automate a warehouse?

It’s still common for companies to view automated warehouses as a ‘nice-to-have’ or a luxury they can’t afford – especially when it comes to robotic automation. The technology is considered too complex and specialised, and therefore only reserved for the larger players with the biggest budgets. This mindset was shaped mostly by an era of large-scale investments, and because early providers were not able to offer affordable solutions at scale.

The reality is that the last 5 years has seen the average AMR or AGV robot price fall by half, and even further when you compare them to the cost of current labour. As demand increases, so does the demand for more economical automation. Robotic automation is becoming more affordable and accessible to access – and more business leaders are aware of its benefits.

Of course, your output, stock type, storage setup and staff levels will all be factors dictating the kind of automation you require. As well as what workflows you want automating in the first place.

If you spend a lot on storage but the number of physical items passing through your warehouse is low, then you won’t require many robots, but instead more product storage. On the flip side, you might require faster throughput for the number of units your business is shipping, but your storage is limited – in this instance, your cost would come from the robots. As well as multi-functional racks, costs could include picking stations, picking walls and replenishment stations for targeted support.

It’s important to keep in mind that nobody at the start of their automated warehouse journey will jump into a full automation overhaul. Like most, they might opt for a more phased approach, starting with a WMS solution and minimal infrastructure changes. From here, a team of automation specialists will visit your premises, assess your daily processes, and record the necessary measurements for analysis.

This data will then be analysed to determine the exact solution you might require, with operational simulations being run to gain an estimated figure for what you could expect to save. Whilst not all providers offer the option, demonstration centres are a brilliant opportunity to see this automation operate in a live warehouse environment.

Start with a WMS solution

How does automation affect the layout of a warehouse?

It’s a big question, and as you might expect, depends mostly on what processes will undergo automation. In the first instance, you need to examine the nature of the materials that need handling.

A warehouse operation can leverage many types of automation, from fully autonomous forklifts lifting heavy pallets, to smaller robots running products back and forth to pickers.

It’s also important to remember moving pallets with automation will require a different layout to a robot handling smaller items to staff. While some robotic movements, like getting a pallet from one location to the next in a horizontal line are straightforward, others are more complicated and may involve different grid layouts and integration requirements.

Not all businesses will have the luxury of a flexible layout, and it’s down to the robotic providers to facilitate any unique requirements. For example, a business might have a site with existing storage infrastructure that they don’t want to change. Similarly, not all robotic vendors will take the same approach to the same problem. This means the layout of your warehouse will be very much dependent on your requirements, as well as your robotic provider.

Are people still needed in an automated warehouse?

If you work in warehouse logistics, manufacturing, or 3PL, you’ve likely questioned the impact automation will have on your own job, or that of others.

Even if you don’t work in those industries directly, it’s likely you have heard stories of how automation will either make or break labour as we know it. Both outcomes are quite radical. And realistically, most businesses will always opt for progressive measures that help their workforce, as opposed to abolishing it.

History also teaches us that opportunities can only come about from change. For example, we may no longer need switchboard operators to receive our calls, but we certainly need customer service teams, or technicians to fix our smartphones when they break. And if automation were truly destroying the job market, you’d expect to see a surge of job losses. What we’re actually seeing is the opposite.

A study conducted across 17 countries examined the impact of robots in manufacturing, agriculture, and utilities. It found that whilst robots did reduce the hours of lower-skilled workers, they didn’t decrease the total hours worked by a human. In fact, wages increased.

The outsourcing of work to machines is not a new concept by any means. And we’ve been doing it for hundreds of years. The trouble is, humans don’t always respond well to change, and we aren’t the best at imagining the kinds of jobs that can be created from automated warehouses.

The idea of a ‘lights-out’ factory will only exist for an incredibly small fraction of society. For most businesses, the options are much simpler, especially for those new to automated warehouses.

We must remember that automation is there to take the most labour intensive, dirty, or dangerous tasks, ultimately freeing up production lines to better serve the needs of a business. Rather than replacing human employees, automation will only ‘steal’ the most strenuous and monotonous tasks.

Can an automated warehouse increase efficiency?

Whilst the layout of a warehouse can always be optimised to reduce “dead time” for staff, there’s a lot to be said for how many hours are wasted on workers simply walking from job to job. In fact, recent studies have found pickers have the potential to spend 60% of their time simply walking back and forth between picks and storage bins3.

What an automated warehouse enables businesses to do, is reclaim that wasted time, as well as layout. Without long walks around the facility, warehouse operatives can concentrate on the jobs right in front of them. Not only that, but the walkway aisles between rows of shelving that exist only for staff can be considerably reduced – AMR based automation can typically save 30% on space on average.

As well as improving efficiencies through saved space and time, automation is creating more meaningful tasks for your workforce. Staff are still the most valuable resource in a warehouse as they possess the ability to perform any number of different roles with the right training, experience, and talent. Focusing so much of your team on a single task such as picking is a missed opportunity.

Flexible warehouse automation allows businesses to redirect and redeploy staff to make the most of their abilities. There are so many different roles pickers could work on in addition to their existing roles, whether that’s goods-in-management and returns sorting, or warehouse maintenance and health and safety support.

7 roles for redeployed warehouse staff after automation

How can you automate your warehouse?

Warehouse automation requires a lot of strategic planning and preparation, so it’s important you consider your first steps carefully. Initially, your business will need to lay out a plan about the process, the goals to be achieved, and the stakeholders involved. The next step will be finding the perfect partner that helps you in creating a solution that’s tailored to your plan.

Backed by over thirty years of experience in the warehouse management and automation industry, Wise Robotics delivers tailored warehouse automation plans to businesses across all sizes and industries. Through cutting-edge robotics and streamlined integration with your existing infrastructure, we work with you to optimise your warehouse, speed up fulfilment and meet the demands of your customers now and in the future.

Start your journey today

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