ARTICLE

Changing priorities

12 December 2012

Technologies that will have an impact on automated warehousing in the near future will provide solutions for maintaining high customer service levels in multichannel operations says Dave Bull, business development manager at

Technologies that will have an impact on automated warehousing in the near future will provide solutions for maintaining high customer service levels in multichannel operations says Dave Bull, business development manager at Dematic

Say the word 'automation' and many in the logistics world will immediately think of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS). This established technology allows for dense storage of both pallets via automated stacker cranes allowing heights of up to 40 metres and for smaller unit loads, such as totes or full cases, in miniload and multi-shuttle systems.

However the profile of automation is changing, particularly in retail.With most retailers now having some form of Internet business many distribution centres now serve multichannel retail operations supplying stores and internet orders - both to the customer's home and as a 'click and collect' operation, where the online order is being picked up in the store.

So technologies that are likely to have an impact on automated warehousing over the next couple of years will be those that can provide solutions for maintaining high customer service levels in multichannel operations - particularly those that have increased their e-commerce volumes rapidly. These technologies include multi-shuttle systems. Although not new these systems are still very much an emerging technology and the uses for which they are deployed are constantly evolving. Very much interlinked with shuttle technology are the very high productivity 'Goods to Person (GTP) stations', which allow picking rates in excess of 800 lines per hour per operator. Both of these technologies are ideally suited to single item picking and therefore Internet retailing.

While traditionally picking has been the most labour intensive activity within a warehouse, and has seen the biggest efficiency gains through capital investment in automation, other areas are emerging that can give a good ROI as automation technology becomes more flexible and accessible. The packing process is ripe for improvement, especially within e-commerce operations.

Automation is also changing its profile in terms of scale.

Improved accessibility to automation means that the solution is no longer synonymous with large investment and systems integration. Entry level technologies such as voice picking or laser guided trucks can provide an almost instant win and a base from which customers can then ramp up the level of automation over the years as their business grows. These 'pockets' of automation, often referred to as 'mechanisation' can provide specific, immediate and obvious benefits such as a simple transport conveyor linking two processes or a standalone ASRS store for minimising the storage footprint. It has become essential for a systems integrator to offer these less complex systems, which are more attractive on a price point, in addition to having a capability to provide a fully integrated automated system.

Dematic, for example, is well known as a large systems integrator but its products division, which offers customers simple automated solutions such as voice, conveying and pick to light, is thriving. These solutions can be implemented without major upheaval and require only a relatively small investment. If you can tell a customer that they will get their investment back in 12 months time and then reap pure profit, they will see opting for the automated route as less of a challenge.

These solutions also present an entry level development route for small companies on a growth path, allowing them to start with a relatively small investment in automation, such as voice picking, then graduate to WMS before stepping up to a small conveyor system.

It is important for customers to speak through their account manager to somebody involved in modernisation and upgrades to discuss ideas and costs for such enquiries. By putting together a concept and costings and then explaining and demonstrating its features, benefits and the return on investment, they can help customers remove obsolescence and refurbish equipment. This can help ensure they continue to meet business objectives.
 
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