Ryan Kirklewski, Accelogix COO, explains why true warehouse optimization requires proper flow control of all tasks across your entire operation and consideration of four factors: process, people, systems, and automation.

By: Ryan Kirklewski, COO at Accelogix

Clarifying Your Goals | Finding The Right Solutions | Achieving True Warehouse Optimization

Clarifying Your Goals

“I need automation in my warehouse.”  It is a common refrain we hear from customers these days.  The reasons why these companies are looking for automation vary – rising labor costs, evolving customer demands, new product lines requiring different handling practices, the pandemic.   When I ask each of these companies what “automation” means to them I get a variety of answers – conveyors, pick to light, robots, or simply a system to tell their workers what task to perform next.

Many of these companies will end up talking to an automation vendor who will have a solution – often times a big, static, expensive one at that – to sell them.   It is hard to walk through a distribution center with miles of conveyor systems or a gigantic automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) and not assume that the building is running at peak efficiency.  I mean, spending lots of money on big, complex systems is a surefire way to ensure your operation is running as peak efficiency, right?

When customers talk to us about their need for automation, I often like to start by challenging the notion that automation is what they are looking for.  Often I find that these companies are really looking for optimization and flexibility.  Leaders in distribution centers are always trying to squeeze the most productivity they can out of the operation while trying to keep their costs down as much as possible.  At the same time, these warehouse leaders are trying to anticipate future customer needs to ensure they will be able to meet them – all while maintaining efficiency and cost control.

Finding the Right Solutions

While automation solutions certainly play a role in helping drive operational efficiency, the process for determining what automation solutions will drive the greatest value in an operation is just that – a process.  Too many companies jump right into an automation solution without taking an end-to-end view of optimizing their operation and considering how the solution will allow them to pivot in an uncertain future.

True warehouse optimization requires proper flow control of all tasks across your entire operation.

This requires proper orchestration of all resources (human and otherwise) to complete the right task at the right time to ensure constant movement of product – even when exceptions occur.

I have talked to many companies that have invested significant dollars into solutions like auto store just to find out that they did not properly size the solution.   When you implement an oversized solution and most of the locations within it sit empty, it is very hard to achieve any ROI.   Other companies install automation solutions to speed up part of their operation without anticipating the ripple effects in their operations.  If you speed up your picking operation without asking how it will impact the packing process, you may just push efficiency issues downstream and not actually achieve anything.

Achieving True Warehouse Optimization

True warehouse optimization requires proper flow control of all tasks across your entire operation.  This requires proper orchestration of all resources (human and otherwise) to complete the right task at the right time to ensure constant movement of product – even when exceptions occur.   To achieve true optimization, you must consider four factors:  process, people, systems, and automation.

  • Process. Any optimized distribution operation starts with good process. Powerful software solutions or complex automation solutions are no replacement for thoughtful process engineering.  Instead, these solutions should enable an optimized process.  Far too many companies purchase and implement automation solutions without first considering the desired end state for their operation’s flow.   Once you have designed an optimized process you will have more clarity as to where an automation solution will drive the most value by exposing your opportunities for improvement.
  • People. The concept of a totally lights-out warehouse with no people is still mostly just a concept.  Most distribution centers still have human workers and when you introduce automation into those environments you need to think about how the people and the automation solutions will work together (whether that’s an ASRS system, a sortation system, or autonomous robots).Consider an ASRS system that is bringing pallets of product out of storage.  If the human workers and the ASRS are not being directed in sync, your workers may have to wait for the pallet to come out of storage before they can pick up the product and move it.  Likewise, if the ASRS brings pallets out too early product can sit idle waiting for a worker to come move it, potentially backing up the operation as more and more pallets come out of storage.  In the case of temperature sensitive product, that can be very problematic if it sits in the wrong temperature zone too long.  Proper flow control of tasks across all your resources (human and machine) is crucial for true optimization.
  • Systems. Most warehouses have at least one software system that it uses to run its operation, oftentimes that system is a packaged or self-developed Warehouse Management System (WMS).  However, it is important that you consider how these systems fit into your optimization puzzle, especially with the dramatic rise of point solutions designed to support different distribution processes.  These point solutions may include slotting solutions, parcel shipping solutions, task optimization, and execution systems.  With different solutions creating tasks that need to be done (either by a human or an automation solution), it is crucial that all of those tasks are coordinated together to ensure they are being performed at the right time and by the right resource to avoid creating bottlenecks and slowdowns in the operation.
  • Automation. There is a reason that automation is last on this list.  Instead of starting with an automation solution, start by designing an optimized process that considers your human workforce, leverages systems that support powerful, yet flexible workflows, and optimizes the flow of tasks throughout the entire operation. Once you have completed that exercise, the need for any automation solutions will start to become clear as you will be able to identify your true efficiency gaps.   Typical fixed automation solutions are much more static and less flexible, and oftentimes come with a significant price tag – so you want to make sure that your investment will pay off.  You don’t want to spend for more than you need or before you first optimize your process, people, and systems.

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