By historical standards, the recent surge in both the volume and variety of industrial automation solutions is unprecedented, and it continues to accelerate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the warehousing and fulfillment industry, where technology companies introduce creative automation solutions at a rapid pace.

    The proliferation of automation solutions for warehousing and fulfillment operations in recent years is hard to ignore. Options such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), collaborative robots ("cobots"), and various autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and sorting systems have become integral to the industry's landscape. This surge in automation is driven, in part, by the challenges posed by a shrinking workforce, as well as the push for improved productivity and reduced labor costs.

    Living in an age dominated by automation, our collective desire for a society where it is ubiquitous is understandable. Automation appeals to our imaginations, fueled by science-fiction classics like Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers, and The Jetsons. It's the future — sexy, glamorous, and where the "cool kids" are. Industry events like ProMat and MODEX showcase an array of exciting automation solutions, prompting media outlets to consistently advocate for automation adoption with the prevailing mantra, "Automate, or evaporate!"

    The industry is navigating a perfect storm, with an aging and diminishing workforce exacerbated by events like "The Great Resignation" that was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. This shortage of qualified labor intensifies the pressure on businesses to identify automation as a solution.

    However, is automation itself the goal, or is it a means to achieve broader objectives? While the allure of automation is undeniable, businesses must recognize that automation is merely a tool — a means to achieve goals such as improved productivity and reduced labor costs.

    The real question is whether businesses should prioritize automation as the initial step toward these goals. Or would it be wiser to embark on the journey by enhancing the productivity of existing labor resources, using the existing facility, equipment, and information systems? In other words, do businesses really need those high-tech toys?

    The good news is that remarkable progress toward productivity and cost reduction goals can often be achieved through less expensive and less risky measures than automation. Phased and effective productivity improvement initiatives, without new automation, can yield substantial benefits.

    Level 1

    ·Examine the methods your workers use to perform repetitive tasks in your operation, and reengineer them to improve their efficiency.

    ·Reengineer your workstations based on Lean principles and ergonomic standards to minimize the motion and movement required to complete repetitive tasks, and select safe and effective tools for workers to use for every task.

    ·At the start of each shift, conduct a brief team huddle to set daily goals, identify issues, highlight achievements, and answer any questions the workers have.

    ·Develop effective training materials, and use them to train workers to follow the right methods and use tools safely and effectively.

    Typical productivity improvement: 5% to 15%

    Level 2

    ·Conduct kaizen workshops with workers and supervisors to develop flowcharts for repetitive processes (such as receiving, putaway, inventory management, picking, packing, shipping, and returns), and find ways to streamline them by eliminating and combining steps.

    ·Using clear, simple language and effective illustrations and photos, document the recommended standard operating procedures (SOPs) for all major tasks.

    ·Assemble and maintain an operations playbook incorporating the SOPs, streamlined process flowcharts, and other helpful resources, and place the playbook in practical locations (such as all workstations, the breakroom, and the office of every manager and executive).

    ·Analyze all material flows in the facility, and reengineer the facility layout to minimize the travel distances between associated activities that have strong relationships with each other (such as picking and packing).

    Typical productivity improvement (Levels 1 and 2 combined): 10% to 25%

    Level 3

    ·Based on historical information or estimates, develop and maintain objective productivity metrics (such as units per hour [UPH], lines per hour [LPH], cases per hour [CPH], and pallets per hour [PPH]) for all repetitive tasks, and consistently track the productivity of all workers using these metrics.

    ·Have supervisors conduct periodical, one-on-one coaching sessions with each worker (such as for one hour every month) to ensure that each worker understands how to do the work accurately and productively.

    ·Periodically analyze and classify all active stock-keeping units (SKUs) based on their velocities, and slot faster-moving SKUs in the most accessible locations to minimize the overall distances workers must travel to perform putaway, replenishment, and picking tasks.

    Typical productivity improvement (Levels 1 through 3 combined): 15% to 30%

    Level 4

    ·Each week, generate a list of all the workers who performed each task, sorted by their productivity numbers, and foster healthy competition among workers by posting the lists in a prominent location (such as in the breakroom).

    ·On a periodical basis, ask every worker to suggest a minimum number of productivity-enhancing ideas (such as a minimum of two ideas every month), and promptly implement the good ideas, giving meaningful credit to the workers who suggested them.

    ·Periodically recognize workers who had exceptional productivity (such as by classifying the top 10% of workers as gold, the next 10% as silver, and the next 10% as bronze).

    ·Regularly reward workers who consistently achieve exceptional productivity by giving them non-monetary awards (such as free lunches, gift cards, t-shirts, and concert tickets).

    Typical productivity improvement (Levels 1 through 4 combined): 20% to 35%

    Level 5

    ·Develop and maintain objective, multi-variable engineered labor standards for every repetitive task, and consistently measure and track the labor performance of all workers against these standards.

    ·Establish a formal monetary incentive program that rewards workers who exceeded their performance standards during each pay period (such as wage bonuses and paid time off).

    Typical productivity improvement (Levels 1 through 5 combined): 25% to 40+%

    These initiatives can yield significant improvements in labor productivity without the need for extensive automation investments. While there are cases where automation is a sensible investment, it's crucial to assess whether the time is right. Are you already maximizing productivity from your existing workforce, using your existing facility, equipment, and information systems? If not, then exploring low-cost, low-risk measures to boost workforce productivity may be a wise step before you invest a lot of money in automation.

    Steve Hopper is Founder & Principal of Inviscid Consulting. Inviscid helps businesses drive down operating costs and boost service levels in their warehousing, fulfillment, distribution, and logistics operations. He can be reached at or 404.832.5326.

    This article originally appeared in the January/February, 2024 issue of PARCEL.