When many people hear the term “warehouse automation,” it probably conjures up images of colossal warehouse spaces brimming with robots, sophisticated conveyor systems, and equipment carrying a hefty price tag, seemingly reserved for the industry elites in manufacturing and eCommerce.
Thankfully, this is a misconception.
Thanks to rapid advancements in both software and hardware technology, warehouse automation is no longer a far-fetched dream but an accessible, tangible reality for businesses of all sizes.
In this post, we’ll spotlight how you can harness the power of automation to not only streamline operations but to carve out a niche of excellence in the competitive warehousing landscape.
By the end of this post, you’ll know:
- The various kinds of warehouse automation methods and how each of them works
- Specific tools and technology warehouses use to automate their workflow
- How to get started with warehouse automation
Let’s dive in!
Understanding warehouse automation
What is warehouse automation?
Warehouse automation is the use of technology to streamline storage and handling processes, making them more efficient and reducing the need for manual labor.
Digging deeper, warehouse automation is all about using smart technology to optimize as many warehouse tasks as possible. The compound effect of these automation systems fundamentally transforms the way warehouses operate.
Through the integration of sophisticated robotics and intelligent software solutions, warehouse managers can automate tedious and labor-intensive tasks that were traditionally carried out by humans.
This means a reduction in human errors, streamlined processes, and a significant speed-up in operations, carving out a path to a more efficient, agile, and responsive warehouse ecosystem.
Warehouse automation doesn’t just replace manual labor but enhances it, bringing a degree of precision and speed that would be unattainable otherwise, all while fostering a safer, more reliable working environment.
Benefits of warehouse automation
Enhanced operational efficiency
Warehouse automation projects are all about making things run smoother, quicker, and with fewer mistakes. When you set up systems to handle tasks automatically, it’s like having a super-organized helper that knows exactly where everything is and the fastest way to get it.
This kind of setup means that orders get filled quicker, with less fuss. And, because things are running so well, customers will start to recognize your business as one that is reliable and efficient.
And the good news is, you don’t have to be a big company to start using automation. Even smaller businesses can use these tools to make their operations better and compete with the big guys.
Cost savings and ROI
When it comes to business, saving money where you can is always a good strategy. Warehouse automation technology can help you find ways to save and get more value from your investments. One of the big ways it does this is by reducing the amount of money spent on labor – with machines handling more tasks, you don’t need to hire as many people.
(Or, you can upskill and retrain warehouse employees to work on more high-level tasks.)
And when you use resources wisely, getting the most out of every item and space, your Return on Investment (ROI) – which is a way of saying what you get back from what you spend – naturally gets better.
So, embracing warehouse automation is a bit like having a secret weapon in the marketplace, helping you stay ahead of the competition.
Inventory accuracy and control
Remember the days when you had to do manual inventory counts and keep track of all the items in the warehouse one by one?
(Or maybe you’re still in those days right now!)
Warehouse automation brings helps you know exactly what you have in your inventory at the click of a button, all in real-time.
This means no more headaches over lost items or messy storerooms. This modern way not only takes away the traditional hassles of manual counting and tracking but makes your business run like a well-oiled machine, ready to fulfill orders swiftly and accurately.
What are the different types of warehouse automation?
Let’s look at the wide range of warehouse automation systems used by both small and large warehouses alike.
Note that not all of these warehouse automation solutions will be applicable to every warehouse space, but consider this list as a way to understand what’s possible when it comes to warehouse technology.
Revolutionizing material handling, order picking, and packing, robotics help ensure precision and speed. Robotics can be further divided into different specialties:
- Robotic mixed-case palletizing and robotic layer building: These technologies assist in efficiently stacking various products on a single pallet and building layers of uniform products, respectively.
- Robotic delayering and descrambling: These assist in unstacking products and organizing them from a jumbled state, offering swift preparation for the storage or shipment process.
- Robotic piece picking: This facilitates the quick and accurate picking of individual items, often using state-of-the-art autonomous mobile robots.
These are the workhorses in the automated warehouse, tirelessly moving materials with efficiency and accuracy. The variety includes:
- Case erectors and cartoners: These facilitate the rapid assembling of boxes and carton packaging.
- Check weighing and in-line scales: Ensures that all packages are within the required weight range, improving accuracy in shipping.
- Shrink tunnels and bundles: Used for packaging, these technologies facilitate the wrapping and grouping of products securely.
- Various types of sorters: Technologies like NBS and Bombay sorters categorize products in different groups based on specified criteria, enhancing efficiency.
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS)
Maximizing storage density and accessibility, AS/RS is vital in maintaining a lean and agile operation. They come in different forms, such as:
- Miniload Systems: Operating on a case or tote level, these serve comparable purposes as traditional AS/RS but cater to smaller units.
- Unit Load AS/RS: These are either crane-based or shuttle-based, designed to manage heavier loads, and are serviced by top providers such as Swisslog and Dematic.
These systems bring goods directly to the operators, reducing travel time and potential errors:
- KIVA Systems/Amazon Robotics/Grenzebach: Specialize in carrying shelves of goods to the operators, optimizing the picking process.
- Blackline Lithium-Ion based robots: Offer high-density goods-to-person solutions, being more capable and efficient due to the integration of lithium-ion technology.
Collaborative robots (cobots)
These robots work alongside humans, increasing the picking activity in existing spaces and offering flexibility:
- 6RiverSystems, Locus, etc: Notable for allowing customers to flex fleet size through short-term leases, adapting to peak seasons without a hefty investment.
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and similar technologies
Found almost everywhere, these vehicles are continually improving:
- AGVs/LGVs/AMRs: These are utilized for a range of functions, from transporting small parts to unit load movements, serviced by quality providers including Egemin and Dematic.
- Automated trailer loading and unloading: An emerging technology that streamlines the process of loading and unloading trailers, reducing the manual labor involved and speeding up the whole process.
Exploring the world of warehouse automation means delving into a rich landscape of technologies, each with its unique set of benefits that can revolutionize your warehouse operations.
Software-based warehouse automation systems
Thanks to the rapid advancement of cloud-based business software, the world of warehouse automation is no longer relegated to the physical.
Digital solutions like SkuVault can play an equally vital role in streamlining warehouse operations.
These systems, often called warehouse management systems (WMS) or inventory management systems (IMS) act as the central nervous system that orchestrates a symphony of automated tasks to streamline processes and enhance efficiency.
These systems take various forms, encapsulating a wide range of functionalities tailored to suit different operational needs.
Real-world examples of warehouse automation
In today’s fast-paced market, companies big and small are turning to warehouse automation to streamline operations and improve efficiency. Let’s take a closer look at some real-world examples of how warehouse automation is being implemented:
Amazon is at the forefront when it comes to utilizing automation in their warehouses. They use over 200,000 robots alongside their human workforce to pick, pack, and ship items swiftly.
These robots reduce the workload on humans and significantly speed up the processing time, ensuring that your orders arrive at your doorstep in the quickest time possible.
Tesla’s automated manufacturing facility
Tesla’s manufacturing facility is another epitome of automation, though it’s not strictly a warehouse.
Robots are utilized extensively in their production line to ensure precision and efficiency in assembling various parts of their electric vehicles, demonstrating the expansive potential of automation technologies.
Ocado’s smart platform
Ocado, a British online supermarket, has revolutionized the grocery sector with its smart platform. They use robots to handle the vast majority of their order picking and packing processes.
Through a complex web of conveyor belts and robotic arms, Ocado can process a 50-item order in just a few minutes, a task that would take a human significantly longer to complete.
Walmart introduced a system called Alphabot to optimize its online grocery fulfillment. In this system, automated carts retrieve items for online orders and bring them to employees at a picking station, where the orders are assembled with speed and accuracy.
This system helps Walmart to expedite the process of putting together online orders, keeping customers satisfied with quick service.
DHL’s robotics solution
Global shipping and logistics giant DHL has also integrated automation into their operations. From using robotic arms for sorting packages to automated guided vehicles (AGVs) that transport goods within the warehouse, DHL leverages modern technology to enhance productivity and reduce manual labor.
Each of these examples illustrates the transformative power of warehouse automation, showcasing how technology can be harnessed to boost efficiency, reduce manual labor, and foster a more streamlined and effective operation in the ever-competitive market landscape.
Keep in mind that while these are the “gold standards” of warehouse automation, even smaller operations can learn from these principles and adopt automation techniques piece-by-piece in their warehouse.
FAQs about warehouse automation
What is warehouse automation?
Warehouse automation refers to the use of technology, including robots, conveyors, and software systems, to perform tasks that were traditionally carried out by humans, thereby improving efficiency, accuracy, and speed in warehouse operations.
What is an example of warehouse automation?
An example of warehouse automation is the use of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) which streamline storage and retrieval of items, enhancing efficiency by maximizing storage space and reducing retrieval times.
What are the three levels of warehouse automation?
The three levels of warehouse automation are:
- Manual operations with basic mechanization – where tasks are predominantly carried out by humans but with the assistance of basic machinery like forklifts.
- Semi-automated operations – wherein there is a mix of manual labor and automated systems, with technologies like conveyor belts and barcode scanners to aid workers.
- Fully automated operations – where the majority of warehouse processes, including storage, retrieval, and transportation of goods, are carried out by automated systems with minimal human intervention.
What is the largest warehouse automation company?
The exact “largest” company can vary based on different criteria such as revenue, market share, or geographic reach. Some of the dominant players in the industry are Daifuku, KION Group, and SSI Schaefer.
Is Amazon warehouse fully automated?
Amazon warehouses are not fully automated; they utilize a combination of human labor and automation. Robots are used for tasks such as moving goods and assisting with picking and packing, but humans are still essential in the operation.
Is Amazon automating warehouses?
Yes, Amazon is continually working on automating its warehouses. They use robots for a variety of tasks, including moving shelves and assisting in sorting packages, and they continuously explore new technologies to increase automation and efficiency in their facilities.
How big is the warehouse automation industry?
The warehouse automation industry has been seeing robust growth, especially propelled by the eCommerce boom. Its exact size can vary based on the source and the specific metrics used. It should come as no surprise that warehousing is a multi-billion dollar industry globally, and it is predicted to grow significantly in the coming years.
What impact does warehouse automation have on the supply chain?
Warehouse automation significantly optimizes the supply chain by enhancing efficiency, reducing errors, and facilitating quicker responses to market demands. It helps in streamlining various processes, ensuring a smoother and more reliable supply chain.
How can warehouse automation improve inventory counts?
Warehouse automation employs sophisticated technology to track and manage inventory in real time. It minimizes human errors associated with manual counting, thus providing more accurate and reliable inventory counts.
Automated systems can also rapidly update inventory counts to reflect received shipments or products that have been shipped out, maintaining a continually accurate inventory status.
What is the future of automated warehouses?
The future of automated warehouses looks promising with advancements in AI, robotics, and machine learning.
We can expect to see a greater level of automation with technologies facilitating real-time inventory management, predictive analytics for forecasting demand, and improved safety and efficiency through the utilization of robots and automated systems.
How many warehouses have automation?
The exact number of warehouses with automation is continually changing as more and more companies adopt automation technologies to enhance efficiency and competitiveness.
The extent of automation can also vary greatly between warehouses. To get the most recent data, it is recommended to refer to the latest industry surveys or reports.
Starting to use warehouse automation is a big and important step for many businesses. It’s not just about using new technology; it’s a smart plan to improve warehouse productivity and earn more money. It’s all about improving your supply chain so you can quickly and easily respond to what the market needs.
Today, distribution centers are at the heart of selling and buying things. They need to work fast, accurately, and reliably.
By choosing to use warehouse automation, you’re choosing to work more precisely. This means you’ll always know what you have in your stock, avoiding delays and mistakes that can stop your business from growing.
This guide is here to help you navigate this new world of automation. Planning well means each step you take is thoughtful and right, reducing risks and getting the most benefits.
This change is more than just technology; it’s about changing how we think and work with supply chains and managing inventory. The future is here now, offering great chances for growth and success. As you start this journey, remember to make decisions based on knowledge and a clear vision of all the opportunities that wait in this promising future.
Take the next step in redefining your business’s potential. Learn more about how SkuVault can be your partner in achieving warehouse excellence. Visit our product page to explore the full range of solutions we offer and start streamlining your warehouse processes today. Or take an interactive tour to try out the system firsthand.