There’s currently a digital supply chain transformation that’s happening faster than the physical supply chain can react, requiring hybrid solutions in semi-automated environments where humans and robots work in tandem. New incentives to modernize operational capabilities should be added that capture efficiencies not previously achieved, while laying the foundation of a digitalized supply chain, continuously re-evaluating plans and evolving for performance.
Automation has been looked at as a solution to operational challenges, but trends in the marketplace signify an unprecedented rate of adoption taking hold in the coming decade. E-commerce is driving service expectations to levels that may not be achieved without the use of highspeed picking alternatives to manual operations. The aging generations in mature economies and challenges securing a loyal millennial workforce for repetitive tasks are creating increased disruption to staffing, forcing employers to look to automation to offset risk of labor shortages. Continued innovation has reduced costs of entry for automated capabilities, delivering improved business case justification for automation of many forms.
With such a strong justification, operations leaders across the globe are seeking ways to capture the potential that automation offers. Large scale transformation of distribution networks is capital intensive, however, and rarely warranted given the pace of change – however rapid – and market uncertainties. Therefore, we’re forced to look within existing environments to identify opportunities to introduce automation into existing facilities, combining automated equipment with manual operations, which requires the added complexity of orchestrating work across semiautomated operations. This scenario introduces the question of how to create an optimal environment allowing warehouse management systems (WMS) to orchestrate work across manual and automated areas to ensure efficient operations and maintain quality and service levels.
Part 1 of this 2-part blog series will take a deeper dive into today’s automation systems landscape and retrofitting today’s supply chain with automation. Part 2 of the series will cover disruptive technologies and digitalization and next generation capabilities.
The Current Landscape of Automation Systems
In automated environments, WMS often work alongside warehouse control systems (WCS) that manage the routing of containers as they traverse the material handling equipment, and warehouse execution systems (WES) which often have basic task management capabilities but not the level of control or optimization of a WMS. Below are a few general groupings of automation that typically leverage these entities in different ways.
- Conveyors and sortation equipment receive destination / routing information from the WMS and leverage the WCS to divert containers to the appropriate location.
- Pick execution equipment, including pick-to-light, carousels, or A-frames will receive pick instructions from the WMS and rely on the WCS to control the MHE. At times, these devices will manage task distribution and user interfaces for the performance of picks, though often, the WMS will manage the tasks through prioritization, and provide a common user experience (using consistent equipment where appropriate) for work performed in the pick modules and in bulk storage which feeds it (this work would include putaways, cycle counting, and picks where appropriate). Often, a WES has been sufficient for high volume outbound operations in retail, but with increasing emphasis on service levels, the advanced functionality of a WMS specific to inventory accuracy, pick module replenishment, cross-docking, and exception handling, the WMS brings a strong justification for a two-pronged approach.
- Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) are well established, though adoption is increasing as more forklift providers offer driverless units. These units can take direction from a WMS (typical when involved in semi-automated environments) or WES (often used in ASRS racking systems where materials are commingled or when the vehicles can follow multiple routes to alleviate congestion). In either scenario, a WMS is often utilized to manage inventory allocation to customer and order.
- Palletizers use visual determination for pallet building capabilities, but most in use require some level of consistency in product dimensions at the layer level. Advanced pallet building and robotic arm picking capabilities are increasing in use, but require some consistency in dimensions. Improvements in digital sensing will soon be changing the game here.
Retrofitting Today’s Supply Chain with Automation
Automation adoption will continue to accelerate in response to advanced service level expectations and e-commerce, with a focus on scale and speed, whereas a continued migration of margin focused businesses will drive adoption of driverless vehicles and high-density storage modules, especially in cold storage or mega-cities with high volume real estate. The introduction of automation into the existing facilities will bring challenges, such as:
- Traditional footprints, system capabilities, and business processes will be challenged when faced with the introduction of conveyance, sortation, and pick execution equipment. A natural inclination to delineate businesses, and potentially create channel-specific operations, can result in artificially inflated inventory levels and/or reduced service levels in increasingly sensitive environments to failures in this area. Multi-channel capabilities can be achieved, often driving operational leaders to adopt pick execution capabilities to distribute work without recognizing the backlash to overall service levels of having disparate capabilities with traditional WMS controlled processes. The results, if not thought through, can have repercussions on inventory accuracy, exception management, and operational efficiency.
- The introduction of driverless vehicles (AGV or ASRS) offer strong advantages in terms of scale and cost, ROI projections in union environments can often deliver break even points less than a year after go-live, even in new projects. However, legacy storage equipment and material flow can introduce limitations. The environments best prepared for the introduction of driverless forklifts are those managing full pallets in bulk locations (where dimensions are predictable and stack requirements are well documented), or those where racking capacity is capable of managing fixed locations that can be tracked in the WMS (if locations can be dedicated to a specific lot), or in the WCS (where multiple pallet locations can be managed by the WCS but the WMS can manage storage/allocation in concert with non-automated areas). In more complex operations, the WCS can take a more active role in determining work and allocation, but this often drives customization and redundancy with WMS functions specific to the needs of the business.
- More robust, piece level management in advanced pick modules controlled by ASRS such as goods-to-person automation, offer advanced capabilities for high volume distributors and e-tailers. Often, this will require tote storage of product to standardize the storage capabilities, though concessions for non-conveyables must be considered. Integrating pick and pack operations with traditional areas of the same operation also force decisions on how to integrate inventory management with shipping capabilities, adding complexity to projects as WMS and WCS providers offer similar capabilities.
Check back for part-2 of the blog series, where we’ll go into more detail around the technologies driving next generation warehouse automation and digitalization and next generation capabilities.
For more information download the Future Series white paper, “Adopting automation in the digital age.”