It seems everyone is interested in considering automation, and there are plenty of enticing reasons. Distribution and fulfillment center managers are dealing with a tightening labor pool, rising labor wages, and increasing market competition. These issues have placed an even larger emphasis on improving the productivity and throughput of labor-intensive operations. And, with lengthening lead times and escalating capital costs, the pressure is intensifying to start your automation journey. With decades of automation development and recent innovations, the industry is exploding with alternatives.

    This expanding interest in automation is driving some companies to lower their minimum rate of return and increase capital budgets. With longer equipment lead times and other supply chain risks, management is also expecting investments to last longer than typical planning horizons. As a result, there is increased importance on the design process, including the use of quality data, accurate growth projections, and detailed evaluation of automated solutions. The good news is, there are many automation/technology alternatives to retrofit an existing building and/or use in a new building.

    Planning Comes First

    Before getting enamored with reviewing technology, it is critical to develop planning requirements. And, while some are pushing hurdle rates lower, it is still important to understand the return on investment. The automation journey begins with collecting data and future operational business changes and projections, including item dimensions and weight, units of measures (each, case, pallet), inventory levels, and inbound/outbound volumes. With a future state data model complete, the focus shifts to identifying the functional areas to evaluate for automation. The use for automation exists throughout a facility, including receiving, storage, order processing, packaging, and shipping. The question is, where does automation make the biggest impact on the operation to reach your objectives?

    The receiving area is overcome with manual labor, including operators unloading trailers, checking in receipts, and sorting items onto pallets. The use of conveyor technologies is a typical option for unloading and sorting parcel/less-than-truckload trailers. Robotics is making a push into unloading floor-loaded trailers and has the technology to grab cases from a trailer and place them onto pallets and/or load conveyor. For unloading full pallet trailers, there are automated truck unloading systems that move an entire trailer load onto the dock with a press of a button. However, enabling this technology typically means the received trailer is equipped with special equipment. The auto loading/unloading of trailers is more common for manufacturers, where entire trailers are loaded at the plants and unloaded at their distribution centers. The other option for automating the unloading pallets is using autonomous forklifts or fork-equipped AGVs (automated guided vehicles). These same solutions are applicable for the shipping dock, while it is more common for case/tote conveyors and sorters be used for loading directly into trailers.

    The warehouse storage footprint is the largest area within a distribution center. As a result, transporting pallet loads throughout the warehouse consumes a high amount of labor and is one of the simplest to automate. Within an average facility size (250,000 sq. ft.) a material handler can travel thousands of feet per day moving pallets to/from the dock. These material handling functions typically require operator-driven forklifts within a facility. The use of unit-load AGVs, autonomous mobile robotics (AMRs), and autonomous forklifts eliminates these labor requirements. Another benefit with AGVs/AMRs is they can be installed in a modular way to manage volume growth and capital spend.

    The labor required within a manual warehouse can also be eliminated with the use of an automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS). Unit-load (pallet) AS/RS systems have been in use since the early 1900s and are typically designed more than 100-foot-high using single- or double-deep pallet rack structures. The cost for these systems is driven by the number of cranes, which can be reduced with higher and more dense storage designs (3+ deep storage lanes). The multi-shuttle solution hit the market around 2010, as an alternative to the single crane per aisle AS/RS designs.

    The tote-based multi-shuttle system is popular for smaller items full case, inner-pack and/or each order fulfillment. It is also commonly used as a buffer storage system between picking and consolidation, packing and shipping and the shipping dock. Shuttles can access locations on multiple levels within the same aisle simultaneously. A tote-based system is often compared to the mini-load AS/RS and may provide higher throughput and flexibility. The full pallet multi-shuttle is an option for higher volume, larger case, or full pallet order volumes to compete with the unit-load/pallet AS/RS. There is an increasing number of suppliers and design concepts for shuttle systems. The typical shuttle design is 32 to 82 feet high and includes multiple shuttles per aisle moving vertically and horizonal to retrieve/stock totes. It may come as a surprise, but a popular use for shuttle technology is to consolidate and reduce the labor handling slower moving items.

    AMRs hit the distribution industry more than 20 years ago, and today, they are one of the trendiest technologies evaluated for reducing labor within the order pick area. One application for an AMR concept is to move shelving units stocked with products to pack stations for order picking and packaging. This application requires the set-up of an area with shelving units for multiple AMRs to access for fulfilling orders. To leverage building clear heights and reduce the floor space requirements, many AMR systems are designed with mezzanines. Other AMR applications have the mobile robots navigating within a fixed pick storage area and replace traditional push carts. The mobile robot moves order totes through the pick path to reduce the operator travel time. The operator interacts with the robots by picking the required items into the totes. The added benefit for mobile robotics is they can be added into existing operations with little disruption. There are also AMR-lift designs that act as mobile shuttles to retrieve totes for picking/packing, and the innovations continue. Other popular piece pick technologies include automated put-walls, automated case pickers, unit sorters — and don’t forget about drones.

    The evaluation and adoption of automation and related technologies is continuing to grow and shows no signs of slowing down. The pandemic created a wake-up call for the dependence on labor within larger conventional warehouses. And, with warehouse labor harder to find and at a premium to keep, the rise of automation is here to stay. If you are not already considering adding automation to your future plans, the journey starts now.

    Norm Saenz, Jr. is Partner and Managing Director, St. Onge Company.

    This article originally appeared in the May/June, 2022 issue of PARCEL.