There are many challenges businesses face operating in ‘the new normal’. These range from ensuring employees stay safe through social distancing measures to maintaining reliable and cost-effective supply chains to meet customer demand.
Technology and automation can play a vital role in helping businesses to adapt and keep employees safe whilst improving efficiency. The impact of the pandemic will stay with us for a long time. The time is right to consider adopting technology that has previously seemed too costly or not relevant for your operations. Those who move quickly and embrace technology as part of the solution will have a competitive advantage in the future.
The process to identify the right solution for your business – or part of your business as one size does not fit all – can be complex. Storage and handling systems are varied, and the solution you select will be determined by your SKU profile, (products’ size and weight, accession rates), the order profile (number of orders, products per order, items per order), your depot configuration (footprint and height) and your ability for capital expenditure. With regard to the latter the increase in adoption of these technologies, coupled with attitudes to the reliance on the labour market and the attitude to risk, mean that payback periods are reducing - becoming a part of the equation rather than the be all and end all of the decision making process.
Of paramount importance is knowledgeable and independent support to develop the right solution and source the right vendor.
This paper will focus on key areas where new technology can be applied to improve business resilience, employee safety, and efficiency in a warehouse environment in a relatively short space of time with minimal capital outlay.
The impact of COVID-19 has had far reaching and long-term effects on warehouse operations. The key challenges faced in the new normal are:
- Rapid and accelerated growth of ecommerce
- Changes to product mix and quantities ordered by customers
- Keeping operational costs under control whilst maintaining customer service levels
- The need to adapt operations to ensure employees are kept safe through social distancing, including measures to prevent contamination, and spread of infection
In recent years there has been rapid growth in warehouse technology and automation that has improved productivity and reduced the reliance on manual labour. Automation does not necessarily require large capital investment projects, such as high bay crane installations or ASRS systems. It can be as simple as implementing wearable technology to improve speed and accuracy of picking, which is relatively low cost and easy to set up.
We will focus on systems that specifically address the challenges of operating warehouses in a post COVID-19 world, to directly help with keeping employees safe and improve productivity at key stages of the warehouse process:
Additionally, there are ancillary activities that can benefit from technology to support warehouse operations in the new normal:
Receiving product into the warehouse is the most manual and hands-on process in warehouse operations where limiting physical contact is the most challenging. Receiving shipments from multiple suppliers in different packaging, often with blind receipting (no advance shipment notifications of products and number of cases, for example) results in orders needing to be physically checked at the point of receipt. Unloading of containers and trailers requires manual labour working in confined spaces that is difficult to mitigate.
Semi-Automatic Unloading System
There are systems available that can semi-automate the unloading process. Telescopic conveyors can allow one person to work in a container to de-stuff it at high speed and feed into the warehouse via the conveyor belt. Several staff can then stack the products to pallets whilst spatially separated. These systems may increase productivity as they can offload cases and pallets faster than manual labour, it also reduces physical contact therefore reducing risk of contamination. These solutions are well suited to bulk loads or those requiring re-palletisation.
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
AGVs can automatically move product from one area of the warehouse to another. Generally AGVs travel at a lower speed than manned vehicles. Recent work we have conducted demonstrated a good payback within a few years with the removal of the labour element more than offsetting the slower speed.
The picking process is the main warehouse activity that can benefit from implementing automation and technology to improve productivity, thereby reducing the risk of contamination. There are many solutions available ranging from supporting manual picking to full automation. The rise of online shopping has led to order sizes being much smaller – often 1 SKU or 1 item, rather than full pallets of stock. This decimates productivity levels and requires completely different methods of operating to maximise the cube of the warehouse, to reduce the travel time expended by pickers and to batch orders to pick several in one go.
Automated Goods to Person
Automated goods to person (GTP) systems deliver product stored in the warehouse directly to the warehouse operative. The operative can stay in one zone to pick product from multiple locations, enabling social distancing rules to be applied more easily and reduce the risk of contamination, with less touch points.
Traditional GTP Automation
Traditional GTP automation that has been deployed in operations for a number of years includes conveyors, carousels, lifts and automatic storage and retrieval systems (ASRS). The capital investment needed for these solutions may not be as high as expected, and the variety of options means that there is often a solution to fit your operation. High SKU / low volume throughput operations can be transformed using lean lifts or carousels. The key is matching the right solution to your operational profile, and then knowing how to profile and use the technology. A lean lift or carousel stocked with extremely slow-moving products may simply be a waste of capital; fill it with fast moving, high cube products and it won’t cope with the throughput. But there is a sweet spot where the right product and the right use will transform your operation increasing productivity, space utilisation, and service.
Rather than fully automate the picking processes they complement manual picking activity improving productivity, enabling social distancing, and reducing contact with products and surfaces.
Vertical Lift & Carousel Systems
Vertical lift and carousel systems can be used to maximise space utilisation and minimise touch points. The operator only accesses the storage area required to pick from and with increased space utilisation social distancing is easier to adhere to.
Pick by light technology can also be integrated to further improve picking accuracy and ensure the right product is picked virtually eliminating the possibility of handling other products or storage areas.
Passing orders from one section to another can be accomplished by conveyors (expensive and not flexible) or by Cobots.
A large number of SKUs can be stored in a very small footprint and are protected by the operator only accessing SKUs that are required to fulfil orders.
Autonomous robots (Cobots) are becoming increasingly popular in warehouse operations as a relatively low cost and easy to implement option. There are two main types of Cobot:
- The follow robot that is directed round the warehouse to the relevant pick zones. The robot “follows” the pickers around their designated zones and the picked items are directly put on the robot in totes / cases / pallets. The picker stays in their allocated location with the robot going to one or more zones and delivering the completed pick to the despatch area. This is a relatively easy and flexible solution as the warehouse layout does not need to be changed. It can increase efficiency as it reduces travel time and enables the pickers to cover a smaller area, increasing pick rate.
- The GTP autonomous robot delivers the storage units directly to the warehouse operative at the pick station, and the items are picked into the required shipping unit. These systems are very efficient and allow segregation of workers as they remain at their static pick bench area. There is a longer implementation time with this system as integration is required with existing storage equipment which may need to be modified or replaced, and more systems testing is required. As the storage area moves the physical height of the building is not fully utilised.
Automated packaging solutions are becoming increasingly sophisticated and used to improve the final stages of the warehouse operations. Automated packing machines are capable of creating fit to size boxes for single or multiple item orders with variable dimensions, reducing manual labour and waste packaging, increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impact.
Automated packaging solutions reduce the risk of contamination through less handling of products and reducing the reliance on manual labour to pack orders. Automated Packaging Systems have the capacity to tailor make 1,100 packages per hour.
Wearable technology is being increasingly used in warehouse operations. It can improve productivity, safety, and conformance to COVID-19 operational protocols, at relatively low cost compared to infrastructure projects. The implementation timescales are almost immediate, with minimal training required.
Vision & Voice Picking
Augmented reality (vision picking) and voice picking eliminates the need for hand-held scanners, reducing contact with surfaces. The operative is taken to the exact pick location, in the most efficient way possible, reducing travel time. Two handed picking is possible for heavy or bulky items without the need to aside a pick list or scanner. Accuracy checks can be incorporated to ensure the right product has been picked.
With vision picking managers can view exactly what the operative is viewing, ensuring congestion can be constantly reviewed and enable operatives to keep a safe distance from each other.
Hand Mounted Scanners
Hand-mounted scanners enable contactless scanning via a wearable bar code scanner. Several years ago operator complained the heavy wrist-mounted units weighed too much, modern versions are now small units mounted on gloves with a detachable scanner that can be recharged quickly.
The glove is available with a built in sensor that alerts the operative if they are too close to another colleague. As the operative’s hands are protected from touching surfaces directly it can provide additional protection from contamination.
The main advantages with wearable technology is that it minimises touch points, can be easily disinfected at the end of the shift, and can be permanently assigned to an individual further reducing the risk of infection.
As with any supply and demand scenario specialist cleaning equipment that eliminates the need for heat or toxins during decontamination, and can sterilise wearable technology without the risk of damaging the devices, has now been developed and should be a part of the overall solution.
Technology does not have to be used directly in warehouse operations to have significant benefits on productivity and safety. Traditionally warehouse training has been a very hands-on experience with new operatives being trained on the job in physical operations. This leads to lower productivity until the new operatives can get up to speed, and with social distancing a key factor close contact whilst training becomes a major issue. Virtual Reality (VR) technology makes it possible to train warehouse operatives away from the operational environment, resulting in employees starting work with higher productivity levels and minimal impact on current operations. Existing warehouse staff productivity is also maintained as they are not training employees in the actual warehouse.
The Forklift Simulator provides training for operatives using a VR headset and simulation vehicle. As well as training benefits the system is customisable so that it can replicate specific working conditions, enabling warehouse managers to assess the impact social distancing rules will have on FLT movements and proximity to employees.
As part of new measures to keep employees safe, technology can be applied to warehouse access points such as installing facial recognition time and attendance (T&A) terminals to enable contactless clocking in and out of shift, reducing the risk of spreading infection. They can also be portable via wi-fi and therefore can be moved where necessary if multiple entry and exit points are set up to improve social distancing measures.
To provide further safety measures for employees starting their shift temperature measuring devices can be installed to ensure anyone showing COVID-19 symptoms does not enter the site. Camera technology is available that checks both temperature and also that employees are wearing masks before they are allowed access.
There are technology and automation solutions available that can have an almost immediate impact on improving safety and efficiency in the new normal.
- Re-configuring the WMS to improve social distancing and limit the number of employees working in close proximity of each other.
- Install facial recognition T&A attendance equipment with temperature monitoring cameras
- Train new employees remotely where possible using VR technology.
- Implement dedicated wearable technology for each employee, to minimise touch points and cross contamination, and disinfect equipment at the end of each shift.
Short to Medium Term Solutions
- Install automated container unloading equipment and packaging machines to reduce touch points, increase productivity, and minimise manual labour.
- Reconfigure storage and picking areas with lean lifts and carousels to improve storage space, increase picking productivity and minimise touch points .
- Implement “follow” cobots to improve productivity and ensure employees are allocated to work zones to facilitate social distancing.
Longer Term Solutions
- Implement a fully automated ASRS system such as Swisslog’s Autostore solution. These types of systems are the most productive, with least manual interaction however serious consideration needs to be given to the ROI and whether it is a suitable investment for the type of warehouse and product range it will be deployed in. The payback of such systems is also longer, typically within 4 years.