Automation in the Warehouse and DC
There are hundreds of good reasons that every warehouse and distribution center should consider automation; at least to some degree. Most businesses start out as fairly small operations. As the business grows, people are added, short processes become full time jobs, and peak seasons dictate the use of temporary labor. The addition of labor, training new employees or temps, and overhead costs can quickly reduce efficiency and bottom line profitability.
Reason 1. Order Processing Inefficiencies
As people and manual processes are added, mistakes typically increase as well. One of the first places warehouse and distribution operations should look towards automation by getting rid of paper.
Here are two low cost/low tech ways to get rid of paper in the order fulfillment process:
- Use RF scanners to pick orders. RF terminals and scanners are much less money than even a few years ago. There is also a great market of refurbished units that can cut costs further. You will need software to bridge between whatever host or ordering software is used and the scanners. A picking application will also need to be written or interfaced to these devices.
- Use light duty computers and handheld scanners to pack orders. Pack station operations that use paper to review order information and QC are extremely inefficient. With the use of barcodes and order identification, orders are easily viewed with a computer monitor. Even though the process of checking order is still manual, there is no paper to shuffle. However, a final invoice or packing slip may be printed once the order is validated and added to the shipping carton for final pack.
Reason 2. Adding More Workers Adds Cost and Less Incremental Return than Automation
Growing pains are going to happen. Adding to that pain should be avoided. Adding bodies to a process does not necessarily make it more efficient. The idea with automation is not merely to “reduce head count”, it is to “optimize head count”. Workers are far more productive when their tasks add meaningful value to the overall operation.
Here are some ideas to maximize the current workforce.
End of line shipping and manifest processes. This area is typically ignored. Most operations tend to add more manual manifest stations rather than optimize the process. A simple 10-20 feet of automation can solve a lot of processes with 1-2 people, where 2-6 (or more in larger operations) are required to provide these tasks manually.
Typical systems will include:
- Barcode scanning to ID a shipping carton (or other packaging)
- Inline weighing to capture the weight of the shipment automatically
- Optional cubing if the warehouse does not use fixed sizes in shipping cartons
- Automatic print and apply of the shipping label
- Verification scan of the shipping label
- Interface software to report data to a host system and/or shipping software
- Conveyor to induct, process, and discharge shipments
Sortation of shipments by carrier or service type. Whether packing and manifest are manual or automated, a simple scan of a barcode can direct conveyor to transport and sort to 2 or more shipping lanes. Simple diverts, transfers, or specialized sorters are used to sort packages to the proper shipping lane. This can have an impact on shipping costs, presort discounts (for the 22 USPS presort locations for those shipping heavy USPS).
- Simple pass/fail. Used to accept or reject a shipment based on barcode scan, exceptions such as manual validation for high cost shipments, etc.
- Sort by carrier. A simple sort for commons carriers, store locations, etc. may be used. Easy programming is used to know the different barcodes, lookups for destinations or carrier, or other business rules to sort.
- Multiple sort locations. This may be used in larger environments and DC’s shipping thousands of boxes per day. Locations may include carrier, service level, store location, presort locations, or any number of combinations.
Every warehouse and distribution center is unique in some way. Variables such as product mix, SKU count, number of items per order, size of products, and overall daily volume and seasonality all play significant roles in choosing the best steps forward towards automation. One thing is certain: the technology available and ability to work your way into automation over the long haul should all be on the front burner of any warehouse or distribution center strategy and master plan.