Why Warehouses are Adopting Automation
Next generation warehousing may sound like the name of the latest Star Trek film but automated warehousing is, in fact, the future of the warehousing a...
Next generation warehousing may sound like the name of the latest Star Trek film but automated warehousing is, in fact, the future of the warehousing and storage industry as we know it. The concept actually dates back to the 1950s when the first Automatic Guided Vehicle (AGV) was brought to market (A Guide to Robotic Logistics, elettric80.com). At the time, automated meant that a tow truck could move via a wire in the floor, as opposed to by rail. Ok, so it might not sound like the most advanced technology but the idea since then has remained the same; to utilize cutting edge equipment in warehousing in order to increase productivity and accuracy.
Joel Anderson, President of the International Warehouse Logistics Association (IWLA), agrees about the ways in which automation can be an advantage to the warehousing sector. “The benefits of automation encompass reducing the unit cost of labor, increasing the throughput and reducing the number of errors,” he explains.
Anderson highlights the specific technologies currently being adopted by warehouses. “Among the most prevalent technologies being used are in Pick and Put to Light, voice-directed picking, motion detector lighting, low energy usage lighting, low carbon emissions forklifts, skylights, package carousels and many others,” he says.
Some of the other more familiar forms of automated applications currently being utilized in warehouses and storage facilities include robot palletizing systems which use flexible definition software to pick goods and palletize them. The robot application can also add slip sheets, cartons and trays to pallets, dependent on the product. Wrapping machines are now also a frequent sight in warehouses, as are Warehouse Management Systems (WMS), such as those designed by Oracle.
In a white paper entitled ‘Order Picking for the 21st Century: Voice vs. Scanning Technology’, Aaron Miller, Principal at Tompkins Associates, takes an in-depth look at the voice-directed warehouse solution and its use as an order picking tool. Mispicks are a common but costly error in the order picking process. For this reason, companies are turning to speech recognition technology to iron out the errors, thereby reducing inefficiencies.
Miller reveals that voice-directed warehouse order selection is more accurate and productive than both handheld scanning and paper/label based methods. He cites one company as having made savings of $1.3 million in one year following the implementation of voice, and a 50 percent reduction in returns.
Automation certainly has come a long way in the last few years but its development is likely to pick up pace in the future as companies face increasing pressure to cut costs in the supply chain.
“I see automation continuing to progress for a variety of reasons, but primarily because of the pressure to produce as close as possible to 100 percent in timing, processing, returns and fulfilment — in all of the functions performed inside the warehouse and outside with respect to the scheduling of truck and train transportation,” Anderson explains.
100 percent reliability is required of any supply chain today, he continues, which is why automation has such a significant part to play.
A study released in February this year by Stanford University and TradeBeam recognized the potential gains for companies who automate their supply chains. The research, ‘How Enterprises and their Trading Partners Gain from Global Trade Automation: A New Process Model for the China-US Trade Lane’, found that organizations could stand to achieve improvements of between 10 and 40 percent by implementing global trade best practices and accompanying automation.
ROBOT LOGISTICS - THE FUTURE?
In practical terms, automation is a huge commitment for companies and carries its own risks and costs. “A facility requires a certain level of scale or operation to obtain the returns needed to justify adopting automation,” Anderson says.
Along with reduced costs and inefficiencies, there is a belief that automation results in mass redundancy. In the current economic climate, job losses are an all-too-familiar sight but Anderson believes that automated warehousing poses no such risk to the industry. “We should note that at the same time the use of automation has increased in business operations, we have also grown the workforce.”
He continues: “We have continued to grow jobs, although there has also been a shift to the service sector from manufacturing.”
Next generation warehousing then has advanced at a consistent pace, in line with the ever-changing needs of the supply chain. It would be too simplistic to say that one day warehousing will be entirely automated (and too reminiscent of a bad sci-fi film to believe that warehouses will be run by robots in the future). However, robotic logistics holds a lot of potential for the industry. We’ll just have to wait and see where it takes us.
Biden establishes Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force
The US government is to establish a new body with the express purpose of addressing imbalances and other supply chain concerns highlighted in a review of the sector, ordered by President Joe Biden shortly after his inauguration.
The Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force will “focus on areas where a mismatch between supply and demand has been evident,” the White House said. The division will be headed up by the Secretaries of Commerce, Transportation, and Agriculture, and will focus on housing construction, transportation, agriculture and food, and semiconductors - a drastic shortage of which has hit some of the US economy’s biggest industries in consumer technology and vehicle manufacturing.
“The Task Force will bring the full capacity of the federal government to address near-term supply/demand mismatches. It will convene stakeholders to diagnose problems and surface solutions - large and small, public or private - that could help alleviate bottlenecks and supply constraints,” the White House said.
In late February, President Biden ordered a 100 day review of the supply chain across the key areas of medicine, raw materials and agriculture, the findings of which were released this week. While the COVID-19 health crisis had a deleterious effect on the nation’s supply chain, the published assessment of findings says the root cause runs much deeper. The review concludes that “decades of underinvestment”, alongside public policy choices that favour quarterly results and short-term solutions, have left the system “fragile”.
In response, the administration aims to address four key issues head on, strengthening its position in health and medicine, sustainable and alternative energy, critical mineral mining and processing, and computer chips.
Support domestic production of critical medicines
- A syndicate of public and private entities will jointly work towards manufacturing and onshoring of essential medical suppliers, beginning with a list of 50-100 “critical drugs” defined by the Food and Drug Administration.
- The consortium will be led by the Department of Health and Human Services, which will commit an initial $60m towards the development of a “novel platform technologies to increase domestic manufacturing capacity for API”.
- The aim is to increase domestic production and reduce the reliance upon global supply chains, particularly with regards to medications in short supply.
Secure an end-to-end domestic supply chain for advanced batteries
- The Department of Energy will publish a ‘National Blueprint for Lithium Batteries’, beginning a 10 year plan to "develop a domestic lithium battery supply chain that combats the climate crisis by creating good-paying clean energy jobs across America”.
- The effort will leverage billions in funding “to finance key strategic areas of development and fill deficits in the domestic supply chain capacity”.
Invest in sustainable domestic and international production and processing of critical minerals
- An interdepartmental group will be established by the Department of Interior to identify sites where critical minerals can be produced and processed within US borders. It will collaborate with businesses, states, tribal nations and stockholders to “expand sustainable, responsible critical minerals production and processing in the United States”.
- The group will also identify where regulations may need to be updated to ensure new mining and processing “meets strong standards”.
Partner with industry, allies, and partners to address semiconductor shortages
- The Department of Commerce will increase its partnership with industry to support further investment in R&D and production of semiconductor chips. The White House says its aim will be to “facilitate information flow between semiconductor producers and suppliers and end-users”, improving transparency and data sharing.
- Enhanced relationships with foreign allies, including Japan and South Korea will also be strengthened with the express proposed of increasing chip output, promoting further investment in the sector and “to promote fair semiconductor chip allocations”.