» Can we do a project like this ourselves? The answer to this depends directly on the experience and skill sets of your internal IT and Operational teams, their existing workloads and the nature, scope and timing of the automation solution under consideration. To some degree, these factors are interrelated, and how one is looked at may have implications on one or both of the others. In other words, there is no short answer.

Internal Team Factors Obviously, the organization fortunate enough to have an internal team rich with knowledge and experience in the design and deployment of automation solutions will be better positioned for implementation internally than its counterpart that does not. This doesnt necessarily mean a team should or should not take something like this on in either case, but the bottom line is that experience matters, and mistakes cost both time and money. Weigh the costs and time issues carefully stretch your team to help them grow, but dont introduce unnecessary artificial risk or set the stage for failure.

Existing Project Portfolio If the existing workload has your team covering a lot of ground already, then their skill sets and experience may not be relevant to the decision. Successful automation deployment, similar to other significant endeavors, will require both resource time commitment and continuity. Look for external help if it doesnt make sense or cant be guaranteed from your internal resources.

Nature and Scope The nature and scope of the automation solution under consideration must also be weighed in the context of the previously mentioned factors. In the case of a relatively straightforward deployment with minimal complexity and flexible time constraints, even a team of relative inexperience might be successful. As complexity increases and time becomes significant, then experience is an absolute must and even the most seasoned teams may need to augment or outsource completely.

»What are the tasks that have to be done and/or planned for by us? This will depend in part on whether you decide to tackle the selection and implementation internally or leverage external skill sets and experience. Going the internal route clearly means that most tasks, short of equipment delivery and perhaps physical installation, will be yours and that you will have to account for them somewhere in your overall project plan.

Outsourcing the project execution will certainly result in less day-to-day task responsibility; however, by outsourcing, do not assume that your role is purely oversight and check writing, though these will indeed remain your responsibility. Depending upon your selected solution provider(s) and their scope, your additional task areas will typically include:

Steering Committee Participation Task items commonly associated with this responsibility include active participation in initial project direction meetings and follow-on status and contingency planning sessions, review of published project update materials and assistance in the management of vendor relationships as necessary.

Design Approval & Sign-Off You know your operations and business needs better than anyone. As such, you should be required to approve and sign off on functional and potentially technical especially integration designs prior to movement to the next project stage(s).

Acceptance Testing Unit and system testing will likely be performed by the hired help, however final acceptance testing and participation in integration testing involving your existing systems will be yours.

User Training On average, Train the Trainer training is provided by vendors with the expectation that a repeatable and scalable program is delivered to the customer so that new hire and refresher training can be performed once the vendor is gone. You may be provided the opportunity to train your other floor users during the implementation cycle while the vendor is still there, but it is typically your task to do so.

Facility Preparation Task items generally associated here include labeling, electrical and data runs, signage as necessary, construction permits, etc.

Startup Support This is typically a task shared by the vendor(s) and the client and can provide for significant system experience in a compressed time frame. Lessons learned here can be invaluable in either validating the anticipated support model and structure or identifying necessary changes. The enhancement and upgrade list compilation will also begin here.

» How long will it take? That clearly depends on the nature and scope of the project. All else being equal, the smaller, focused endeavor such as the addition of an automated parcel packaging system, the shorter the time frame that will be required to select and implement. On the other hand, deployment of an AS/RS system will require a bit more time. In addition to the complexity of the solution, anything involving construction or facility realignment will clearly have a significant time impact.

Whether your project should take a few weeks for a smaller adoption or several months or more for a more intensive engagement, your timeline will be impacted by the amount of preparation and planning that you devote up front and the discipline you enforce during the project itself. Regardless of where you fall on this continuum, careful planning and due diligence from the beginning (selecting the right vendor) through planning (realistic, achievable milestones) to deployment (mitigate risks rather than manage to exceptions), will help you keep your timeline under control.

»What is involved in switching over to automation? Weve talked a bit about some of the factors to be considered in the decision process towards automation, as well as the phases that would typically be gone through to justify, select and successfully implement an automation solution from a process and planning perspective. Some other important areas to review prior to throwing the switch and turning on the automation include the people and testing aspects, as well as start-up risk mitigation planning.

Process & Cultural Changes Automation changes processes and that impacts people, some of whom will inevitably handle the situation better than others. Rather than just make an announcement at the daily shift supervisors meeting that things will be changing, lay the groundwork for the process and likely cultural changes well ahead of implementation. Get people from the floor involved as early as possible.

Training Everyone intuitively knows the value of training, but for a myriad of reasons it doesnt always get the attention that it deserves. Develop a training program addressing all of your resources, including managers, super-users and the folks on the floor. Prepare refresher materials and cheat sheets. Dont just train at one shot and think youre set make it an ongoing process. Leverage your team members that have been trained to help out with others.

Realistic Testing Do your testing before flipping the switch. Test with real data under realistic conditions. Test hard with volumes significantly greater than you anticipate hitting in production. Be creative in attempts to break the system with potential real-world scenarios. Drive testing out of the operations side of the house.

Start-Up Risk Mitigation The real question here is what are you going to do to ensure that product gets out the door? Prepare contingency plans in the event that not everything goes miraculously well. Line up additional staffing in the event that you need bodies to push things through. Arrange for extra operational hours if possible. Communicate excessively internally and externally. Let customers know you are cutting over to new systems. Talk to your transportation partners. 

Be sure to join us in the third and final installment, which includes an interview with Paul Loebbaka, Managing Director of Fulfillment for Alta Resources. You can find Part I of our series online at www.PARCELindustry.com.

Dennis Dearth is Director of Technical Services for TranSystems | ESYNC. He can be reached atdldearth@transystems.com or  by phone at 419-842-2210.