What’s in store for warehouse automation in 2022?

Automation, the process of automating the movement of inventory into, within and out of warehouses to customers, is the new hot topic in the logistics sphere. Over a series of articles, we’re going to look at various aspects of automation and its effects on logistics, supply chains and customers. In this article we’re looking at the way automation plays into a known problem amongst supply chains: last-minute staff shortages.

Why use automation?

Automated tasks such as stock retrieval (picking), sorting, labelling, and packaging offer many benefits to our customers’ businesses:

  1. Faster order processing, product retrieval, and delivery prep
  2. Reducing warehouse operations costs by automating some repetitive, low-level manual tasks
  3. Optimising warehouse space by reducing the workforce on the floor and becoming more accurate about aisle sizes and pallet organisation.

Meeting demand

As demand for space and people reaches new heights, companies are working ever harder to keep up with orders and fulfilment.  As a result, we are seeing our customers move towards modular automation solutions to support their warehouse operations. Modular automation brings a new way of thinking by subdividing process line tasks into smaller, more manageable building blocks. These solutions improve efficiency by tackling specific issues or problem areas in operations.

Common issues addressed by modular automation:

  • Distributing return items to the correct area to be checked by staff
  • Distributing stock to the correct area for packing / delivery
  • Decreasing order cut off times for next day delivery

Michael Marienfeld, from Eridge Associates[1], explains, “Often you find 70% of a picker’s time is spent walking, so reducing the walking element has an impact on the bottom line. Modular automation solutions can help in tackling this sort of issue.”

Automation in the sortation process of parcels allows fashion retailers, for example, to decrease their online order cut-off time from 7pm to 10pm for next day delivery, therefore maximising their daily orders by making their space work more efficiently.

Do we still need people?

In response to labour shortages that the logistics industry, like many others, has suffered from in recent years, warehouse automation sounds like the ideal solution. However, as JLL’s Logistics Buildings of Tomorrow report [2] concludes, even businesses with well-established automation systems still rely on people. Warehouse systems managers, data analysts and engineers are just some of the positions still needed to ensure the automated systems function optimally. In short, whilst automation helps to maximise the use of space within a warehouse, highly skilled people are, crucially, still needed to manage these technology solutions.

Automation can also be a positive move to attract and retain staff. As highlighted in a recent Forbes article,[3] introducing automation into daily working practices can enable a shift in working roles and patterns, offering employees the flexibility that upcoming generations increasingly expect. It also gives people the opportunity to learn new, in-demand skills. The article also noted that through the automating of more repetitive tasks, warehouse employees can benefit from more stimulating and rewarding roles that utilise their skills to drive business growth.

While full automation is unlikely to work for our customers, a hybrid model that uses modular automation to replace specific tasks can still be a game changer. By using machines to move racking, drones to stock-take and robots to clean floors – taking over the more menial warehouse tasks – our customers can upskill and retain staff and improve warehouse operations efficiency, which will become increasingly powerful in the years ahead.

 

[1] Eridge Associates provide senior building and management consultancy services.