You could say these are the best of times to be in business and the worst of times. On the positive side, after almost a decade of little or no growth, businesses are finally expanding again as inventory moves out and orders bring production lines back to life. On the other hand, transportation and labor costs have risen dramatically, making it much more expensive to move product and harder to grow profits in spite of all the product that’s moving out.
In an economy where labor and transportation are in high demand, keeping costs down while your businesses grows is a priority. Increasing costs eat into profit margins and can force your company to raise prices. The resulting higher costs for the consumer can stall or even halt growth. Conversely, being able to keep costs stable–or even reduce them–gives your products a competitive edge in the marketplace. Keeping costs low can be a challenge, but automated warehouse systems have matured into a viable and efficient way to reduce operating costs in the logistics chain. In fact, reducing costs is just one of many benefits of warehouse automation.
Why Use an Automated Storage and Retrieval System?
An Automated Storage and Retrieval System (ASRS) combines heavy machinery with Warehouse Execution Software to move products into and out of storage without human supervision or intervention. The majority of ASR systems work with pallet-sized loads of product, and usually take the form of a load-handling device attached to a crane that moves between pallet racks on a track. One of these ASRS systems in a warehouse drastically reduces the human labor needed to throughput products and has other benefits, including:
- Maximized Inventory: Traditional human-operated forklifts require wide aisles to maneuver. An ASRS has minimal space requirements, allowing aisles to be much narrower. This means that more racks can be set up in the same amount of floor space, increasing the amount of inventory the warehouse can hold without requiring it to expand.
- Increased Cube Utilization: Forklifts have a maximum height limit, and as the elevation increases, the weight they can lift without toppling over decreases. An ASRS has no such limitations. It can lift the same maximum load at 15 levels as it can at the first level. Companies that utilize an ASRS can greatly increase their warehouse’s efficiency by using more of the vertical space for storage.
- Reduced Interruptions: An ASRS is a machine and requires no breaks while operating. It also cannot misread paperwork or misunderstand instructions, resulting in fewer mistakes made and fewer delays.
The combination of these advantages ultimately results in increased throughput without greatly increasing operating costs. This is a huge advantage when the cost of transporting and shipping goods is rising along with demand for product. Another huge advantage of an ASRS is its scalability–when orders slow down, it can work at a slower pace without a reduction in overall capacity. This is a major advantage over traditional labor where slow periods either mean layoffs or employing personnel to do less for the same wages. However, the capacity and flexibility of an ASRS do come with some drawbacks.
The Drawbacks of an ASRS
The biggest disadvantage of an ASRS is that it is a machine, meaning that it lacks the problem-solving ability of a human. If an issue arises that is beyond its programming, it relies on human intervention to resolve the problem. A more serious situation occurs, however, when the ASRS doesn’t detect an irregularity and tries to continue operating normally.
Minimizing or preventing ASRS issues means reducing the variables in your warehouse.
For example, if a loose nail from a pallet were to puncture a container of fluid product, the machine would carry the leaking pallet through the warehouse and store it high in a rack, spreading the fluid along its route and placing it in a position where it could damage product below. Depending on when it was detected, whole pallets of inventory might need to be discarded and replaced. As in this example, issues in ASRS generally arise from irregularities in the warehouse which are magnified and turn problematic in an automated system. Minimizing or preventing these scenarios means reducing the variables in your warehouse. One of the biggest variables in a warehouse is the humble wood pallet.
How to Get the Full Benefits of Warehouse Automation
Although they’ve long been used to store and transport product in warehouses, wood pallets have many issues. They have the tendency to break and shed pieces of wood, and their weights and dimensions can change depending on the surrounding environment. While a human forklift operator can compensate for these variations—although at the cost of a delay—an ASRS has a much more difficult time. In comparison, plastic pallets have many characteristics that make them a superior choice for use in an ASRS:
- Consistent Dimensions: A plastic pallet is nonabsorbent, and atmospheric moisture cannot cause it to swell or shrink. This helps ensure that an ASRS always has a firm connection to the load, making accidents less likely.
- Lighter Weight: A plastic pallet is much lighter than a wood pallet, coming in at less than 50 pounds. Plastic pallets also have a more consistent weight than wood pallets, which can vary from 75 to 80 pounds (for reusable block pallets). This consistency helps ensure an ASRS lifts the load properly, while the lighter weight reduces wear and tear on expensive machinery.
- Greater Durability: While a plastic pallet is capable of making 100 trips through the supply chain, a reusable wood pallet can make only 15 to 20 trips. This resilience means that a plastic pallet is much less likely to break when handled by an ASRS and won’t leave behind wood debris and loose nails that may damage machinery or require human intervention to clear away.
Enjoying the benefits of warehouse automation is as simple as installing an automated system. However, making the most of the advantages an ASRS gives you requires using a shipping platform that removes the variables from your warehouse. Plastic provides a level of consistency and durability that traditional wood pallets just don’t have, making plastic pallets a necessity for automated warehouse systems.