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Warehouse Automation – Is It Right For You?

4 years ago
Rita K

Here are some considerations to help you decide if warehouse automation is right for your operations. 

Does your warehouse function efficiently now?

If not, a system can offer some forced improvements, but it can’t fix a complex, inefficient warehouse operation. Before you embark on the difficult, time-consuming, and expensive implementation of a Warehouse Management System (WMS), spend some time looking at what makes your warehouse operations work well and what causes breakdowns. Creating these benchmarks helps you understand the potential benefits of warehouse automation. The particular questions will be unique to your business, but you can start with questions such as these:  

  • How do you schedule incoming shipments?  
  • What are your receiving processes?  
  • How frequently do trucks wait for access to your dock?  
  • How long after offloading is incoming inventory moved to the next location?  How long after receipt is incoming inventory available in the inventory records to be released to a customer order?  
  • How accurate is your inventory put away?  
  • How accurately is inventory picked?  
  • How many lines does each warehouse employee pick per shift? / per hour?  What is the total average elapsed time between receipt of a customer order and shipment? 
  • How accurately are items shipped? 
  • How accurately are you capturing shipping costs?  
  • How long does it take to train a new warehouse employee?  

 Once you have identified the areas that are efficient and effective and distinguished those from the areas that are inefficient, you can begin to map out the automation of the “good” aspects and plan alternatives to the “bad” ones. A thorough understanding of your strengths and opportunities will help you decide which WMS offers the best solutions for your company.

Be diligent about your system documentation and the creation of training manuals.

A WMS is necessarily complex. Do you have a plan to create complete and comprehensive documentation? This is a must. Documentation should be used to create training programs that relate back to the documentation. Too often, the documentation and training processes are created separately. This almost never proves to be a good idea. If the documentation is clear and well-articulated (e.g., it should be understandable by every employee charged with interface with any particular part of the WMS – your warehouse pickers should be able to read the documentation relating to picking protocol and understand it well enough to completely understand the picking processes). Documentation isn’t just for the IT department. It should be a clearly stated description of the features and processes that make up the WMS. The training protocols should be stated very clearly, in English as well as the language used by the warehouse personnel, such that any employee can refer back to the documentation of the system (as it relates to their work responsibilities) and understand what they are supposed to do and how they are supposed to do it. This discipline will be immeasurably helpful if your company seeks ISO process certification. It will also ensure a smooth, effective and productive implementation of your WMS.

Do you have a software provider that can provide the unique system your company needs?

There is no “off the shelf” WMS solution. Interactive and cooperative system design will ensure a well-tailored solution and enthusiastic employee buy-in.
Your company is unique. Your processes evolved over years of trials and errors. Your people understand how to do their jobs. You know there is significant room for improvement, but you don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” Your WMS provider should be enthusiastic about working with your employees to understand your business processes and incorporate unique features of your operations into their WMS solution. This ensures that your employees will feel vested in both the design and implementation of your new WMS and will be more receptive to the changes inherent in embracing the new system. Employees will be far more accepting of a system when they feel they made a contribution to the design. Their input will invariably make the system better and more effective for your unique business.

More automation is not necessarily better.

How much automation do you need? There is a cost / benefit tradeoff when considering automation. Automated picking and conveyorization can be seductive, but may not be right for every business. Indeed, beyond the simplistic evaluation of “cost of man hours” versus “cost of automation,” there may be flexibility benefits associated from leaving a significant element of human handling in your system. For example, a recent implementation at a wood products company resulted in the retention of a significant human element in the picking process. The variance in color and grain in the raw material (wood) was such that automation was inappropriate when selecting which pieces of wood could be picked for particular uses. That implementation illustrated the reality that people are just better at some things than machines. It also illustrated the fact that a qualified WMS solution provider will understand the practical implications of bringing technological solutions to a dynamic business.
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