Automation is defined as “the use of largely automatic equipment in a system of manufacturing or other production process.” What does that mean in your distribution center? Automation can refer to anything that you do that is not a truly manual process. So, with that definition in mind, let’s talk about automating your processes. Automation is perceived to cost a lot of money, but that’s not always true.
Let’s face it: The real renewed interest in automation is not to replace existing associates but to reduce the number of people you need in your facility, given that facilities all across the country are finding it difficult to find qualified workers and, most importantly, to retain them at a logical wage. When a McDonald’s franchise location announced a wage of $25 per hour with two weeks of vacation time, the younger generation went there instead of nearby warehouses. Competition is fierce with a shrinking labor pool, so anything you can do to reduce the number of people needed in your facility will not only pay big dividends but also lessen the tremendous effort of searching and finding new people.
Below are a few ideas by functional area to reduce manual handling and increase throughput while also increasing productivity:
Receiving If your product comes in on pallets and you have a receiving staging area, make it smart! Put a bar code on the floor designating the aisles closer to the area that the product goes in, therefore reducing travel times. If you are unloading a container, use a portable automatic flex conveyor so several people can palletize at the same time on the staging area in order to avoid congestion and heat exhaustion in container. Some people are still manually loading to pallets inside the container!
Put away If you are not using directed put away, put this automatic software on your wish list. This will increase replenishment, picking, and overall space utilization. If you have a WMS and you don’t have directed put away, research new releases to find out if that functionality has been included. Directed put away just makes sense!
Order management Do an analysis of your order profile! Do you have like orders for the same SKUs every day? This opens you up to batch picking and sortation.
Picking If you are picking full cases to a pallet manually and walking through the facility on every order, look at implementing a full case pick module with an automatic palletizer. This will quadruple your throughput with fewer people and less errors.
If you are piece picking, there are so many automation solutions available. Choosing the right one for your facility is the trick! If you are still picking with paper, stop. An RF gun will increase your productivity and accuracy, but don’t buy the guns with tiny screens that the order filler has to scroll and scroll through to get the data. Make sure your process is easy and streamlined. If you have RF, you can increase productivity and throughput with pick-to-light, or maybe batch pick with a sort. You may be a candidate with smart pick carts with smart pads at every location telling you what goes in each slot. There are lots of options in automation for picking where the most cost in your DC resides. You may be a candidate for a robotic picking module. Search out ideas to improve this area based on SKU and order profile.
Shipping This is a simple one: Look at your shrink wrap machine. Are your full pallet forklift operators having to get off to start the shrink wrap, or is it automatic? If you have an old one where the operator has to get off, put a new one on your wish list. This will save so much time, and this area has a lot more competitive pricing. There are also a lot more alternatives today than there used to be.
General Anytime you can improve accountability of your team, the more accurate and productive they become. Hold your team to a high standard and make your expectations known, and they will hopefully rise to your expectations.
Remember, if you can’t buy new equipment, there are always companies shrinking or going out of business that may have “like new” equipment for a very good price. Don’t ignore used equipment, but, of course, you don’t want to buy something that is a maintenance nightmare, so choose wisely. The only downside of automation is choosing a solution that leaves no flexibility. Many moons ago, while working on an Amazon facility, the golden word was “agility”. This is still true today; distribution centers need to be agile so they can respond accordingly to changing market trends and order demands.
Susan Rider, President, Rider & Associates, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the September/October, 2022 issue of PARCEL.