Automation has been in use for centuries in the form of water wheels, windmills, and water pumps. However, these devices don’t look like automation to modern eyes. They require human oversight and labor to keep running. Modern automation, on the other hand, replaces human effort instead of just supplementing it. One of the places that industrial automation has been most effective in replacing human effort is in the logistics chain. Warehouse automation backed by Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) and other software has reached the point that it is replacing labor in ways that weren’t thought possible a decade ago.
Intelligent automation is offering new possibilities for warehouses by combining heavy equipment with programmable logic. Conditional statements like “if this, then this” allow nearly every scenario in the warehouse to be planned out and accounted for. Warehouse automation can now operate with minimal human oversight. While automated equipment was incorporated into warehouses as early as the 1970s, it took the form of equipment like conveyor belts and palletizers. Today, as computers grow cheaper and more powerful and innovations like the Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) become more feasible, forward-thinking leaders in logistics are realizing the full potential of intelligent warehouse automation to increase efficiency, improve safety, lower labor costs, and reduce a company’s Total Cost of Business (TCOB).
Assessing Your Supply Chain for Warehouse Automation
Investing in warehouse automation can pay off handsomely. However, automating warehouses and distribution centers is complicated and does have a significant upfront cost. A flawed implementation can eat up a budget and even increase costs down the road instead of reducing them. Before implementing automation in your warehouse or distribution center, perform an honest and informed assessment of your logistics operation. You’ll need to:
The only way to ensure that your investment pays off is to do a thorough assessment of your warehouse’s operational needs and how they could be improved on through warehouse automation. In order to make an informed assessment and final decision, you should understand the types of warehouse automation systems that are available.
Intelligent Warehouse Automation for High-Volume Warehouses and DCs
An automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS), which slots pallets into racks and retrieves them, is at the heart of any intelligently automated warehouse. There are even warehouses that use the racks of the ASRS as part of the building’s structure. The way the racking in your automated warehouse is laid out will depend on what type of system or systems are being used to move product at the load unit level. The most common load unit mover types in an ASRS are:
- Fixed Aisle Cranes: In this warehouse automation system, a crane is mounted to a track on a single aisle and a vertical lifting module equipped with forks moves pallets between individual slots. Multiple cranes are generally used in this sort of system. These types of ASRS tend to work quickly but have higher equipment and maintenance costs due to their multiple systems.
- Moveable Aisle Cranes: Very similar to their fixed aisle counterparts, these forklift-equipped cranes are differentiated by the fact that they can move from aisle to aisle. A system like this has the advantage of depending on fewer lifting devices to do the work. However, a moveable aisle crane can be more complicated than a fixed one, and, due to the need to move from aisle to aisle, it can be slower in performing its intended functions.
- Pallet Moles/Shuttles: To maximize the volume of a building dedicated to storing products, some warehouses dispense with aisles entirely. In this case, a pallet mole or shuttle is integrated into the racks and can move pallets from slot to slot within a single row. Individual rows can be designated as channels for a single Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) or customer. A pallet mole has the disadvantage of not being able to move vertically or from row to row. It will either need to be moved as needed, or moles for each row in the rack will need to be installed.
An ASRS offers a degree of customization, and the type you choose will largely depend on the number of different products passing through your warehouse. A warehouse specializing in multiple types of products moving through quickly may be best served by an aisle-less ASRS that uses pallet moles to move multiple channels simultaneously. A warehouse with fewer, larger items, for which dwell times are longer and accuracy is paramount may be best served by fixed or moveable aisle cranes.
It may also be that your warehouse doesn’t need an ASRS. Your storage areas and procedures could be more than adequate. Instead, your warehouse may benefit from automation that can move load units from zone to zone of the warehouse.
Ground-Level Warehouse Automation for Large Square Footage
Traditional forms of warehouse automation, like conveyor belts, can move heavy loads from loading docks to processing areas and from storage to packing and shipping much more quickly than a forklift can travel the same distance. Conveyor belts are a simple form of warehouse automation that can free up your bays much more quickly and reduce the number of trucks loitering outside the warehouse. Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGVs), on the other hand, can replace the human-operated forklifts that unload trailers.
AGVs don’t require a human operator and are guided by an exterior signal. It could be a radio signal, a laser, an electronic or colored strip on the floor, or even a particular wavelength of light emitted by overhead lighting. Following a fixed route, AGVs can do work 24/7 inside a particular zone or can be detailed to follow a fixed route during which they transfer loads from zone to zone.
AGVs take many forms. The most common is a forklift, but they can be fitted with other equipment as well. AGVs with a small form factor can lift products in containers and transfer them to different zones for processing. It’s possible to mix types of AGVs and to combine AGVs with non-intelligent warehouse automation in distribution centers. Although AGVs have less flexibility than human-operated lifting equipment, they make fewer errors and can work without taking a break. For this reason, AGVs are a good choice for warehouses and distribution centers that work around the clock.
Intelligent Automation of Warehouse Palletization
AGVs are one kind of ground-level warehouse automation. Another is automated palletizers, which use automated case picking and automate the tedious process of packing pallets. These devices load your products onto pallets in well-balanced and secure loads much faster and more accurately than humans can. The most common types of palletizers are:
Automation is also available to unpack pallets. Depalletizers can unpack a pallet layer by layer, saving you the labor of manually breaking apart pallets. A palletizer and a depalletizer may be the only warehouse automation a distribution center needs. For instance, a depalletizer can unpack incoming loads of single-SKU products which are manually stored and picked, and a combination palletizer can create a mixed load to be shipped to a final destination.
The keys to implementing intelligent warehouse automation successfully are knowing exactly what type of automation is needed and integrating it into a fully supported logistics system. Full support means ensuring that every part of your process and every piece of equipment you use is optimized to work with automation.
Supporting Intelligent Warehouse Automation with iGPS Plastic Pallets
Implementing warehouse automation intelligently means supporting automated systems with packaging and equipment that won’t damage or be damaged by the machinery. It means using equipment that makes data easily readable by automated systems and transparent to the humans who operate and maintain the automated systems.
Synergy between the components of your intelligent automated system can be enhanced by the use of an intelligent shipping platform like plastic pallets. Only the iGPS plastic pallet has features that integrate with all types of warehouse automation. The iGPS plastic pallet offers:
In a single package, iGPS provides a shipping platform that easily supports intelligent warehouse automation in the logistics chain and distribution centers. The iGPS plastic pallet is fully equipped to maximize the efficiency gains from implementing warehouse automation, reduce your TCOB, and help you get a return on your investment in automation as soon as possible.