Automation in warehousing refers to the use of varied technologies to improve the efficiency, accuracy and throughput of warehouse operations. Market leaders across industries like grocery, automotive, and e-commerce have already adopted material handling automation solutions, with many more supply chain professionals looking for their own. In late 2020, Gartner interviewed 517 of them and found that 96% wanted to incorporate cyber-physical automation into their warehousing and manufacturing operations.
The most common types of automation in warehousing today include material handling automation like AGVs and AMRs, storage automation, sortation and distribution automation, and inventory management automation. (For more information on the types and trends in warehouse automation click here).
So where do you begin? In a perfect world, you’d be able to see the path to success before you even take the first step. But, short of that, we can share the key considerations to keep in mind as you plan to leap into warehousing automation.
Simulate, simulate, simulate.
Before you deploy any automation solution, you’ll want to see it in action first. Take advantage of modern simulation and simulate all material workflows, processes, and production configurations. This helps you evaluate whether or not a given solution can perform the way you need it to and will align with expectations, estimated ROI, and required KPIs.
Answering these and other kinds of specific questions through simulation before you head into deployment will not only ensure you’re choosing the right solution for your needs but also save the time and cost of a failed implementation. A failed simulation costs very little, whereas a failed automation project can set you back millions of dollars.
Take a phased approach.
Slow and steady will always win the automation race. Rather than going all in right away with robotics and automation, it’s better to take a more evolutionary approach. Implementing in phases allows you to be more purposeful and responsive to equipment needs and lets you scale your fleet as needs grow.
That’s not to say a fast, “rip and replace” implementation won’t deliver a rapid and solid ROI; it just makes it a bit more tenuous. Plus, it creates the opportunity for miscalculations made at an earlier stage to set you back in your current state and deprives you of things like institutional knowledge held at the worker level that can be lost in a rapid, widespread implementation.
Flexibility is key.
Industry leaders are quickly moving away from large complex systems and leveraging more distributed systems to have the necessary flexibility. For example, most of our customers require multiple robot form factors with varying capabilities. It’s largely why we developed a robust fleet of mobile robots that can handle a range of payloads and weights.
McKinsey proposes three warehouse archetypes that can inform decisions around the design of an automation system. Still, it’s important to remember each warehouse will be different. While you may have similar use cases and repeatable workflows and processes across your business, it’s prudent to consider systems that are appropriate for multiple situations and environments, so you maintain an optimal level of flexibility and reconfigurability.
Get staff onside.
It’s so easy to get caught up in the robot side of automation that you can lose some consideration for the humans working with and alongside them. There are many common misconceptions about robots and autonomous systems that cause people to mistrust their use. The fear of job loss being a main concern.
As you develop your implementation strategy, you could create a communication strategy to help eliminate misunderstandings and make the technology accessible to your employees early on. A healthy level of transparency goes a long way in reducing the mystery or resistance to the new autonomous members of the team and, from what we’ve seen, generally leads to much better outcomes.
Taking the time to explain the technology creates a better understanding of the personal and company-wide benefits—allowing your employees to feel involved in the process and see the opportunities available to them within the system.
Support is critical.
If the implementation of an automation solution fails, it’s more often due to weak, post-deployment support and missed or unmet expectations. For this reason, you’ll want to make sure whichever vendor you go with has a robust support program—complete with remote assistance to proactively monitor your fleet of robots and help you address any issues standing in the way of your autonomous solution running smoothly.
This is why our approach to post-deployment support represents a paradigm shift from thinking of robots as a piece of equipment to more of a service. An approach that we (and you should) deem essential to ensure the reliability and safety of your autonomous solution and a way to make sure the investment you make delivers on the value promised.
From No Bot to Robot
One thing is certain about automation in warehousing: there’s no ROI in kicking the tires. Adding to the pressure you feel are the “hidden” costs of labor IDC believes have been undercounted by as much as 50%. While you wait to make your ideal business case for supply chain automation, these costs are adding up.
Our approach to automation is designed to be your release valve. From No-Bot to Robot lays out a step-by-step guide to automation in warehousing in 5 easy steps.
Step 1: Assess
We begin by identifying the pain points within your supply chain network and align that with solutions available on the market—looking at inventory levels, where most of your labor is allocated, and so on.
Based on this understanding, we look for a scalable portion of your network where automation would be most beneficial, define a use case and identify a solution that will result in a solid ROI.
Step 2: Plan
Next, we examine your workflows and choose the appropriate robot type, looking at how the robots interact with the team, facility and systems—determining the number of robots needed for each workflow or route.
We then put your potential robots in real-world environments to ensure they meet expectations, and lastly, we align and define success criteria across stakeholders.
Step 3: Deploy
During the deployment process, we install your robots and onboard and train local staff to ensure they are comfortable using them—helping encourage site adoption and successful operation.
Our six-step deployment process follows a proven roadmap designed to make the deployment phase run as smoothly as possible. We involve customer success teams to help your team and stakeholders understand every aspect.
Step 4: Learn
Throughout the deployment, we involve floor staff and senior management as much as possible, encourage them to ask questions, and schedule multiple training sessions to ensure all staff are adequately trained and comfortable with the robots and the system.
Once the robots are in production and go-live has been achieved, we hand off to customer success managers who conduct regular check-in meetings with the site—reviewing robot performance metrics and addressing any open topics. Our Pivotal™ command center team (PCC) is also there to provide 24/7/365 support, monitor system performance and ensure it meets expectations.
Step 5: Scale
Lastly, we work with you to develop a centralized automation strategy to help you decide what to focus on after the initial rollout—using that first site as a launching pad to understand where similar automation can be implemented across your network.
This is also where our Robots-as-a-service (RaaS) model is beneficial. It not only means you can get the tech you need without a huge upfront capital expense, but it also means you can be responsive to actual equipment needs and increase your fleet when required, all within a low annual fee—giving you the financial flexibility and speed to realize the immediate throughput benefits of your Vecna Robotics automation solution.
The trend toward warehousing automation is catalyzed partly by growing labor shortages, supply chain disruptions, and the widespread preference for direct-to-consumer sales. Three challenges we won’t see let up any time soon.
As you plan for your warehouse automation solution, remember that how a vendor helps you get there is just as crucial as the robots they offer. As we said in the beginning, there is no clear-cut path to success, but knowing what you need and leaning on a vendor with a proven automation adoption roadmap and comprehensive post-deployment support is pretty close.
To learn more about Vecna’s method for implementing warehouse automation, check out our multi-part “From No to Robot” webinar series.
If you’re ready to get started with an initial assessment, contact us to set up an appointment with a Vecna Robotics automation expert.