In a recent blog post following the 2020 peak season, we talked about how we simply cannot afford not to invest in automated technologies… but just how much do we invest? How do we know what level of automation is right for our operation? What kind of technologies should we consider and moreover, which technology providers can we trust?
Today, we are taking a deeper dive to answer these questions and more as the subject-matter experts at AHS, LLC have provided recommendations for those unsure about where to get started. To make it simple, we have organized this post into three sections (i.e., levels of automation) where we discuss the typical business characteristics, technology and solution providers that align with each level of automation.
Investing in Both Traditional and Innovative Equipment Results in an Efficient Manual Operation
A manual process is recommended with businesses new to distribution, daily activity levels are low, acquiring capital dollars is difficult, picking is mainly at the bulk level, or there is uncertainty regarding future activity levels.
The solutions considered at this process level mainly include your traditional material handling equipment like racks, shelving, carts, workstations, conveyors, and carton flow racks, but that’s not to overshadow or discount innovative equipment like autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that should also be considered. Uncertainty of where your business is headed makes it difficult to rationalize a large capital investment. AHS will work with you to mitigate risk by ensuring your provided solution is flexible, within your budget, and will ensure long-term success.
For businesses in this category, AHS’ Director of Automated Systems, Jordan Frank, suggests investing in an AMR – like the StorageBoT powered by MiR – which allows for onboard storage of cases, totes, or other materials up to 440 lbs. The investment is a no-brainer as the AMR can easily be repurposed (with customizable top modules and minimal setup time) to fit an evolving material handling environment.
Introducing Automated Systems for a More Advanced and Partially Automated Operation
A semi-automated process is the next step in the progression from a manual process. As daily activity levels increase, more efficient methods are required to handle the increased throughput and service level requirements. The transition from manual to semi-automated involves the introduction of conveyors, sorters, packaging equipment and a more advanced warehouse control system.
Additional solutions to consider at this level of automation include pick modules, loaders/unloaders, pick/put-to-light technology, and robots/autonomous mobile robots.
A robot (and trusted partner of AHS) worth mentioning here is the Nipper, which is a compact automated vehicle for unmanned internal pallet transport. It can easily lift pallets up to 1000 kg and safely navigate through narrow spaces. By deploying the Nipper to automate the internal transportation of pallets, facilities significantly increase productivity while cutting labor and insurance-related costs.
Utilizing the Most Advanced Tech to Automate and Streamline Order Fulfillment
Automated processes are employed in fulfillment centers that have consistently high daily volume demands. They utilize many of the components of a semi-automated system but replace labor-intensive operations – such as picking – with highly efficient machines. Using goods-to-person (G2P) technologies reduces order cycle times even further than a semi-automated solution but at a higher capital cost.
AHS has partnered with two leading G2P solution providers, Exotec and Caja Robotics, both of which provide flexibility and scalability to grow with demand – keeping initial capital outlay low and adding robots and storage only when needed. Additionally, their relatively short deployment time (6 months or less) allows for a quick transition to a more automated operation.
“Caja provides an innovative, best-in-class, goods-to-person solution that can be easily retrofitted into existing and new environments and done so at a much more rapid pace than traditional solutions,” said Drew Eubank, Director of Customer Solutions at AHS. “Exotec has answered the challenge of scalability in the Goods-to-Person space. There are a number of options available to the market but none scale-like Exotec... This is a game-changer.”
At this level of automation, the most advanced technologies are utilized to streamline each aspect of order fulfillment. In addition to G2P technology, investments are made across various robotics, high-speed sortation systems, collaborative robots and AMRs.
Taking the Next Step Towards Optimizing your Operations
While these suggestions serve as a great stepping stone to understanding the level of automation and corresponding technologies that are right for your business, each operation is truly unique and requires an in-depth data analysis to determine the technology solutions that would best benefit your business.
With over 40 years of experience, our team at AHS is uniquely equipped with the subject-matter expertise and strategic partnerships that provide a truly integrated approach to ensuring that your distribution and fulfillment operations perform at optimal capacity. Take the next step in optimizing your operation and contact our team to maximize your return on investment.