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Automation & Robotics

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Automation & Robotics

Whilst UK and global supply chains have experienced a very challenging few years, the technology that supports them has been developing rapidly, driving down unit operating costs. Warehouse automation and robotics can increasingly provide a real competitive supply chain advantage if used correctly and in the right applications.

First generation automation was primarily limited to large scale infrastructure such as conveyors and expensive storage and retrieval systems. Fast forward a few decades and the application of individual, and often leased, robots have led to significant reductions in both the scale of suitable warehouse environments and the CapEx requirements.

As the potential prize of warehouse automation gets greater, so the field has become more complex to navigate. Understanding how best to match a warehouse’s unique dynamics with the variety of systems available is essential to ensure that you have an optimal solution that delivers the operational performance necessary to justify the investment.

By independently supporting or leading the process of scoping warehouse automation viability, through to feasibility studies, concepts and final design Davies & Robson can ensure that you implement the right solution for you –with the appropriate systems support and commercial terms.

PRE ASSESSMENT - IS AUTOMATION SUITABLE FOR MY WAREHOUSE?

Today, almost every aspect of warehouse operations has the potential for automation; from receiving, putaway, picking, packing to despatch. Automation can include simple conveyors, sortation and retrieval systems to autonomous mobile robots and inventory checking drones. There is a wide range of equipment to support warehouse tasks.

The answer will not be whether the warehouse can be automated but whether an automated solution will retain the necessary flexibility and deliver the financial return required to justify the investment.

An initial conversation with some basic, order of magnitude data is enough to determine a base case for or against exploring at least some level automation. Viability, and ultimately an optimum solution, can then be explored further using structured analysis.

Operational data such as pick volumes/accuracy, speed, product types/sizes and variation in sku changes and seasonality/peaks, will quickly indicate whether further investigation is likely to produce an outcome in favour of some, or full automation.

ASSESSMENT

The second stage in the assessment process requires a detailed analysis of existing warehouse processes, volumes and forecasts to identify areas where automation can provide benefits. This includes understanding how inventory is managed, how orders are fulfilled, and how goods are transported within your warehouse. For example, if your warehouse has high volumes of orders that need to be picked and packed quickly, you may benefit from automated picking systems or conveyor systems.  Low volume operations with a large number of SKU’s may benefit from a product to picker system using robots.

 FEASIBILITY STUDY

This is needed for assessing your current infrastructure, understanding your warehouse layout, and evaluating the space available for automation equipment. A feasibility study can help you identify potential constraints, such as the need to reorganise space and flows, a reduction in operational flexibility or the limitations of your existing infrastructure that could impact the effectiveness of automation.

Some key steps to follow during this stage are:

  • Define the Objectives: The first step is to clearly define your objectives for implementing warehouse automation. This includes identifying the specific tasks or processes you want to automate and the benefits that you expect to achieve.
  • Evaluate the Infrastructure: This includes identifying potential bottlenecks or layout issues, and an evaluation of existing IT infrastructure to ensure that it can support the new system.
  • Identify the Constraints: It's important to identify any constraints that may impact the feasibility of implementing warehouse automation. This includes elements such as the need for increased volumes during peak periods or the ability to rapidly alter SKU profiles.
  • Identifying potential constraints early on helps to develop strategies to address them before progressing with a solution design and implementation.

EQUIPMENT

Once objectives are identified and the infrastructure evaluated, the next step is to determine the equipment required to implement warehouse automation. For more complex solutions, this phase could be supported by a main integration contractor.

Standard warehouse automation equipment includes:

  • Conveyor and sortation systems: These systems use belts, rollers or tracks to move goods around your warehouse. They can be customised to suit your specific needs and can be used for both sorting and transportation.
  • Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS): These systems use system controlled shuttles and cranes to putaway, store and retrieve products in your warehouse. They can be used for pallets, totes, trays, cartons, garment sets, pouches etc to help manage your inventory more efficiently.
  • Automated guided vehicles (AGVs): These are mobile robots that use sensors to navigate and transport goods around your warehouse. They can be programmed to follow specific routes, picking up and delivering goods to defined locations.
  • Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs): Similar to AGVs, AMRs are mobile robots that can navigate your warehouse and transport goods. However, they are more flexible and interactive, adapting to changing environments more easily.

You'll also need to consider the hardware and software required to operate the equipment and ensure that your existing IT infrastructure can support the new system.

IT, SYSTEMS AND INTEGRATORS

The potential of any automation is defined the by the ability of business, warehouse and supplier systems to work together. A fundamental understanding of the IT infrastructure and its inter-connectivity is a critical part of any automation project.

Integration is an increasingly complex area; both technically and commercially. Often a lead automation party will be working with competitor’s equipment to design a solution. Ensuring that the commercial arrangements are correctly structured is essential for a successful integration and project outcome.

ROI & SERVICE FINANCING ARRANGEMENTS

The timeframe for achieving the required ROI is a key factor in focussing on the right automation for your business.  Key questions to determine include;

  • What elements can be purchased Vs leased
  • Ongoing servicing and maintenance costs
  • Ability to scale operations (up or down) to meet changing demand

The ROI timeline will not only determine the viability of a solution, but can also have a significant bearing on choosing between types of leased robotic and fixed infrastructure automation; Whilst the latter usually requires greater investment, it tends to leads to increased operational cost savings.

IMPLEMENTATION STRATEGY

Making any changes to live operations requires careful planning and execution. The development of a comprehensive implementation strategy for a such significant multi-stakeholder change is crucial for a successful outcome and service continuity.

The plan will not only include detailed timelines, training programmes and required resources, but will include contingencies for potential risks and challenges, such as equipment failure or employee resistance to the new system.

A critical consideration is how to maintain deliveries to existing customers whilst the operational changes take place.

WHAT NEXT?

To scope the viability of Warehouse Automation for your business, Davies & Robson can provide an overview of the areas that automation would be compatible with your operation and provide a guide as to the scale of the potential benefits and costs that might be incurred.

As a supply chain consultancy with in-house knowledge and extensive experience of automation, we can guide you incrementally through the process to build the case and solution that best fits your business. We can also provide specialist implementation project managers to lead the process.

By using a structured methodology, maintaining impartiality with providers and taking a manual vs technology-neutral approach we can ensure that the resulting solution is designed to benefit both your warehouse operation and wider business, all within your ROI timeline.

Please contact us on 01327 349090 if you would like to discuss further with one of our experienced consultants.

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