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The future isn’t fixed – warehouse performance plateau

Article by Michael Trimmer

For many people, the warehouse performance plateau is not unexpected. While you might not have known to give it that name, you understand the kinds of problems this phrase represents. You were ambitious with your business, they expected to grow, and now a natural milestone has been reached. The one where you’ve become big enough that existing processes can’t handle what you need anymore. You’re proud to have reached a milestone not many have managed, and now you know what to do. Automation is the next natural step.

You’re entirely right, but in 2021 and beyond, you’re also not quite right enough.

While the instinct might be correct, and the overall growth model is leading you in a good general direction, the specific outworking is out of date. The previous model of automation – industry 3.0 – might have surpassed the warehouse performance plateau a few decades ago. Now, however, the challenges faced by businesses large, medium, and small, are too great for older automation to deal with.

The simple reality is, in 2021 and beyond you cannot expect fixed automation to push you far enough past the warehouse performance plateau for the effort to be worthwhile.

Too slow

The issue is infrastructure. Conveyors. Rails. Gantries. Tailored racks that are built into the warehouse’s superstructure. All these systems take a Herculean effort of manpower, resources, and engineering to get right. While the reason for this is faster processing of orders in the very long-term, for the short-to-medium term. It is impossible to ‘quickly’ install a fixed automation system, and it cannot be done while the warehouse is still operating at full capacity. Not without substantive change to your overall operational style.

Those who were expecting to hit the warehouse performance plateau at some point may ask “wasn’t this always the way?”. The answer is yes, but it’s also complicated.

Yes, it’s true that implementing an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) was always a long and labour intensive process, but in the past this wasn’t such a major issue. In the pre-internet market, a much smaller club of companies found their warehouses hitting the warehouse performance plateau. These were bigger corporations that could afford to keep manual warehouses open whilst they built custom-engineered ASRS facilities elsewhere.

In the current era, with ecommerce booming, next day delivery expectations, and warehouse space becoming scarcer and more expensive, fixed automation is increasingly out of reach for more and more businesses. Technological innovation has become necessary, and thus it has arrived. The robotics revolution isn’t coming. It’s already here.

Too rigid

Let’s assume your business is much more prosperous than most. Imagine you happen to be in the incredibly fortunate position to afford the time, money, and equipment necessary to invest in fixed automation while your manual warehouse continues operating. You then have to ask “what comes next?”

What happens if demand keeps growing? How will you manage if expectations keep rising? If the market changes and technology keeps advancing, what will you do? Or worse, what if there is another COVID-19-esque disruptive event?

We call conveyors and rails and gantries ‘fixed automation‘ not just because of its bulky infrastructure that must be built in place. It also has a fixed top speed. Built-in from day one, fixed automation cannot accelerate beyond a certain point. To adapt it to do so would take another titanic effort of manpower, resources, and engineering to get right. A time consuming and expensive affair.

With the ever-changing nature of the market, can you really afford to invest in a system as immobile as fixed automation? COVID-19 was a real wake up call as the whole B2B and B2C logistics and warehousing sector realised how much their various differences made transitioning from one to the other extraordinarily difficult.

Can you really afford to wait for a system that is this hard to change? A system with such a sluggish approach towards ROI? Don’t the changing times call for more adaptable methods? Clearly, you need something much more flexible.

Fixed is not the future

A long time ago, fixed automation like fixed was seen as the future. That is no longer the case. With its slow implementation and very rigid systems, you cannot rely on this method of automation to deal with the warehouse performance plateau. You need to find new systems and better alternatives. You need industry 4.0 and flexible robotics.

Rapid, re-adjustable, robust

Flexible automation allows for a much more rapid deployment than you can ever expect with fixed automation. You’re looking at a typical timeframe of two to three months (dependant on solution) with an ROI of between 12-24 months.

Flexible automation presents a re-adjustable arrangement option. With no fixed infrastructure, your robots can be reprogrammed and your warehouse rearranged as you need it, whenever you need it.

Diagnosis – Under-automated

Fixed robotics has been extremely useful for several situations. Conveyors can be practical, and railed robots have the potential to make things much faster, but for more and more businesses this simply isn’t the way forward. By making a large investment in fixed automation, you’ll be left with a system where rapid adaptation is impossible, and an arrangement that takes far too long to get started in the first place.

These are symptoms of one common problem. Under-automation.

The warehouse performance plateau is not in itself new. What is new is how many businesses are hitting it, and how little old technology can help. If you’re considering ASRS, you are probably right that you need automation. You just need to rethink your dosage.

Discover more about what is possible with flexible automation by coming to visit us in person.

As the proud owners and operators of Europe’s first flexible robotics demonstration centre, we can show you exactly what industry 4.0 really means. When you witness what is possible, you’ll realise why we say that the robotics revolution isn’t coming soon. It’s already here.

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