We’ve all seen hi-tech automated warehouses where the work is carried out by robots. Guided vehicles and retrieval robots pass goods around the warehouse in a perfectly coordinated dance of efficiency. It is the stuff a warehouse manager’s dreams are made of. But sadly, that kind of technology requires an investment that is simply beyond the reach of most small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The fact is, that in order to justify an investment in physical automation and the often high costs of maintaining such a system, a seriously large volume of inventory needs to be passing through your warehouse on a pretty much constant basis.
However, all is not lost. There are definitely other ways for you to look at automating your warehouse on a budget. Even on an SME-sized budget, it is perfectly achievable to add automation to your warehouse processes and increase record-keeping accuracy and operational efficiency while reducing overall costs at the same time. The trick is that you need to think beyond the kind of automation that automated storage and retrieval systems can offer you and instead think about how to automate your warehousing processes themselves. This should be considerably less financially prohibitive for SMEs and can be handled easily by implementing the right Warehouse Management System (WMS) in your business.
Automated Real-Time Data Capture
First of all, if you wanted to automate data capture, you should start out by making sure your WMS works in real-time. If data is not being updated instantaneously, you will end up with inaccurate inventory counts and location information, which can lead to supply chain disruptions and a poor customer experience. In today’s modern warehouse, real-time data is nothing short of crucial.
The next step to take in terms of automation is to make sure that data capture happens quickly, accurately and from your employee’s perspective, easily. One of the most simple and effective ways of minimizing time spent on data entry, and practically eliminating errors is by having a barcode labeling system in place. Your stock, your racks and your storage units should all be barcoded and within each barcode you should be able to store a wide range of information. By equipping your warehouse operatives with scanners, inputting data that would take several minutes is reduced to a fraction of a second.
And it’s not just about identifying goods either. Using barcodes makes it much easier to track and trace the history of your inventory too.
You can also automate data input during goods receipt, picking, etc. by using industrial weight scales which are connected to your WMS. This will really speed up your processes because your staff won’t have to count or weight the goods manually then input the results of the count/weigh into your WMS. They just put the goods on the scale and the system will be updated automatically.
It’s not difficult to see how using a combination of barcodes and weight scales will mean certain processes will take a fraction of the time needed using a manual system. But it’s worth noting that this kind of automation also helps accuracy. A good WMS will notify you or prevent you from proceeding when data is missing. You should also be able to decide what kind of data can be entered where to help you cut down on data errors. And your WMS should be fully customizable so that you can design it in a way that is specific to your business.
Automating work in the warehouse
You can also leverage your WMS to keep employees on task in a number of ways. The first way is simply by offering them clarity over what tasks they should perform and exactly how those tasks should be performed e.g. health and safety measures to be taken, equipment to be used, proper procedures, etc. All this can be communicated to them via your WMS. But you can also use your WMS to prompt staff to take the right actions at the right time thereby automating their tasks. A good WMS will allow you to send alerts and notifications using customizable triggers. So, if you want your operative to log the temperature of a storage unit during putaway, the WMS can instruct them to do that, and prevent them from proceeding with the transaction until they have done so.
You can also set up your system to choose the best storage location for goods automatically according to whatever criteria you set. Not only does this take a decision out of the hands of your employees, but it is also a great way to optimize your storage capacity. Your WMS will track down current inventory location faster than even the most photographic human memory giving you full inventory traceability at the touch of a button.
Your WMS should also be able to notify your back office staff about stock levels that are either too low or too high. You’ll be able to get alerts about incomplete or overdue tasks and even keep tabs on customers whose credit is on hold so that they aren’t sent out orders inadvertently.
To automate or not to automate?
If you are still dreaming about a robot-powered warehouse, also consider for a moment that there are in fact some things that humans do much better than robots. Humans can adapt to changing business situations quickly and easily and in some cases, can actually perform work faster. If you have an unexpectedly busy period, storage and retrieval systems don’t suddenly have increased capacity. But you can always deploy supplementary staff to your warehouse to cope with demand if you have a human workforce.
Sometimes automating processes can even cause a lot more trouble than it is worth. Many WMSs allocate specific batches of stock to specific orders. This can seem like a good idea in certain circumstances especially where perishable goods are concerned i.e. you can pick the stock according to expiry date etc. But this approach can also bring problems with it. Perhaps your warehouse operative drives his forklift up to the correct shelf and he can see the batches that he is supposed to pick, but they are not the easiest to access on the rack or he can see that the specified batch is somehow faulty. He also sees plenty of easier to access stock, or stock that is in good condition, but he can’t pick it because the system doesn’t allow for that. Here it would be better to use a dynamic system where your operative can record the goods picked at the time of picking.
So the moral of this story is, think carefully about automating your processes. Will it actually make your warehouse work more efficiently? Or will it actually hinder your staff in carrying out their tasks? You should also seek feedback from your employees on an ongoing basis to tighten up your processes, identify where your processes are actually making their job more difficult and also identify new potential for process automation too.