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Material movement: How much can you automate?

2.23.19

10 MIN READ

How much of the total workflow can be automated? Has this analysis been done before? The possibility of operational efficiency, increased workplace safety, and the ability to address labor availability with the use of automation is an exciting opportunity. 

To get started, involve the team through the whole processes and begin with an initial reflection phase of the project. Involve your employees and reassure them that their jobs are not threatened; automation is here to assist them not replace them. Seek every team member’s input, and share the positive ramifications that mechanization offers in day-to-day workflow.

 

Step 1: Initial reflection: Analyze the existing process

Receiving

  • What is the amount of time from when goods enter the warehouse, to when it is put away, and available for sale within the warehouse management system (WMS)? (dock-to-stock cycle time)

 

  • What is the number of inbound orders processed per person in an hour at receiving? (inbound orders received)

 

  • How many inbound lines are processed per person in an hour at receiving? (lines received and put away)

SKU Profile:

  • How many SKUs does the facility currently handle? (number of active SKUs)

 

  • What is the change (increase or decrease) in the number of SKUs the facility will handle in the future? (projected SKU change)

 

  • What are the design specifications? Length, width, height, and weight of the SKUs. Which SKU type has the most impact on storage and handling? (SKU specifications)

 

  • Are there any special requirements for storage? Examples: refrigeration, deep-freeze, climate- or humidity-controlled, etc.? (storage requirements)

Shipping

 

  • What is the order fulfillment and shipping productivity, in pick per hour? per person? (Total yearly orders picked/ total yearly working hours, total yearly orders picked/total employees picking)

 

  • What is the productivity of shipping lines? (Total yearly orders shipped/total yearly working hours).

 

The calculations above showcase the average operational order volume. Compare this information to your peak periods to discover exactly how much volume surcharges during peak times.

Step 2: Selecting where to automate

An operation may look good enough, from the perspective of a day-to-day employee, so it may be helpful to have a consultant or another experienced manager walk through the facility and point out opportunities for improvement. Take notice of the following symptoms of inefficient operation:

Which “person-to-goods” processes could be switched to “goods-to-person?” (“person-to-goods” is where workers move to a pick location, pick the goods, and then move to the delivery dock. “goods-to-person” happens when automated conveyors deliver the goods to the picking station.)

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In what areas are linear activities happening when the actions could be parallelized? Identify areas by noticing when one piece of equipment is blocked by another, or there is too much buffer stowed on a conveyor or dock.

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Where can order processing time be reduced? For example, where do you see extra wait-time interruptions such as waiting for material handling equipment, computer issues, interruption, and blocked aisles or bottlnecks? 

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Where are repetitive tasks, or unnecessary movements of resources or inventory, happening? Which of these tasks could be eliminated or conducted more efficiently, at a lower cost, with less labor, more accurately, and in less time?

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Are there areas that are subject to “silo thinking,” where a decrease in productivity in one area has had an impact on another department or area of the distribution center?   

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After going through the steps above, what challenges in your current operation are the biggest sources of pain – be it related to labor concerns, volume surge, efficiency, increased safety incidents, human error, an accumulation of product, accumulation of waste, etc.?

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Step 3: Decide top priority projects

After compiling the most impactful areas for improvement; include your distribution center’s goals and metrics into the SMART goal framework (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely).

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How automation can help

Diverse automation can assist with all of the pain points noted above. For example, self-driving vehicles and robotic arms enable up to 4 times faster pick rates and average a nearly 100% pick accuracy. They enable organizations to keep up these rates during peak seasons without hiring or training temporary employees. But know, you do not need to automate your entire warehouse all at once. Systems can and should be introduced to the facility over time as you learn what areas are the most improved by automation.  Robots can track data as they work. Organizations can use this data to hone in more accurately on areas of waste, redundancy, as well as your shipping, receiving, and fulfillment metrics.

Adding robotic support is not an end-all solution: robots exist to be added into the material workflow and enhance the capabilities of the entire operation. Vecna Robotics recently introduced Pivot.al, a new workflow orchestration engine that amplifies operational workflows by distributing tasks based on availability, accessibility, and strengths of the resource. This ensures that every aspect of your operation is more efficient - not just the parts you automate.

 

Want to know more?

Learn about Vecna Robotics' entire fleet of self-driving vehicles from our Automated Material Handling and Hybrid Fulfillment brochures. Vecna will be displaying a wide range of vehicles, including its autonomous Tugger and Pallet Jack at booth #S5483. We’ll be showcasing our Automated Material Handling, Hybrid Fulfillment, and Workflow Optimization solutions, along with the self-driving vehicles and technology that fuels them.

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