At its core, warehouse automation is about delegating the dozens of simple, repetitive tasks humans perform every day to machines. These can include digital processes like data entry and accounting or physical ones like parcel sorting and depalletizing. By elevating your human workers into higher value positions and automating your warehouse operations, you can boost efficiency, combat labor shortages, and skyrocket your ROI.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should rush out to buy a fleet of shiny new robots. Your investment might not be appropriate for your customer demand, and you might lack the infrastructure to put them to their best use. Instead, it’s important to understand warehouse automation from the ground up and evaluate which solutions would best suit your current needs and goals.
4 levels of warehouse automation
Whether you’re new to warehouse automation or you’re looking to upgrade, it helps to think of automation in terms of levels or stages:
- Level 1: Basic Automation – A warehouse that might have some simple automated systems such as conveyors, but that’s mainly driven by manual, human-oriented processes.
- Level 2: System Automation – This facility uses a warehouse management system (WMS) or other software to support data gathering and decision making. The system might be linked to smart labels or radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags for inventory management, but goods handling is still manual.
- Level 3: Mechanized Automation – As well as system automation, this step involves using robotic equipment to complement and assist with human tasks. A robot might transport goods, but a human worker will sort them for storage or shipping.
- Level 4: Sophisticated Automation – Complex goods handling is performed by a wide range of automated warehouse systems, such as pick and place robots, automatic sorters and palletizers, as well as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs). These are fully integrated with the WMS and often use artificial intelligence and machine learning to become exponentially smarter and more efficient.
Each of these levels of automation builds on the previous stage. For example, introducing the pick and place automation from Level 4 would provide minimal benefits without the WMS of Level 2 to provide a growing dataset. Similarly, accelerating goods handling with robotics might not help a small, low-demand warehouse as much as saving time and money by automating back-office tasks.
Successfully implementing automation in your warehouse operations relies on understanding where you are in your automation journey and what systems would offer the greatest benefits. Knowing this allows you to choose the most appropriate courses of action and extract the highest possible value from your investments.
Creating a successful automation plan
Once you’re familiar with your current automation level, it’s time to define a goal and strategy for streamlining your warehouse. By following these five steps, you’ll be able to evaluate your current processes, identify areas that need improvement, and prepare to automate for superior results.
- Prepare an expert committee: Even if your position involves overseeing your facility, only those who actively perform warehouse tasks will truly understand your current performance and challenges. Use their expert knowledge to build an idea of how automation could streamline your warehouse and which areas you should target first for maximum impact. You might also want to consult a third-party supply chain automation expert with experience in your industry, as they will have a keen eye for the potential of your automated warehouse systems.
- Evaluate data collection: As warehouse automation solutions rely on real data to perform their tasks autonomously, you need to have an effective data collection system in place. While it might seem like an easy solution, avoid purchasing a public dataset to power your automation, as this won’t be specific to your processes and needs. Identify how you’re currently collecting, storing, and using operational data to build an understanding of the resources you have to power your automated systems.
- Evaluate your current processes: However you decide to implement automation, it needs to integrate seamlessly with your existing operations. Take the time to evaluate your standard processes for inventory control and the metrics you use to measure performance. Consider whether these need to be refined or improved, and how the introduction of automated warehouse systems will affect them.
- Connect your WMS: If you don’t already use a WMS platform, start doing so as soon as possible. These systems allow you to control, track, and manage operations from a single place, giving you a more relevant and cohesive overview of your facility. You can use this information to better identify weaker areas and drive higher performance in your automated warehouse systems.
- Set an automation goal: Using the four levels of warehouse automation, set a reasonable goal for automating your facility. If you only have basic automation or none at all, plan for system automation. If you already mechanize your manual processes, consider how you could introduce other robotics and software products that further minimize the need for human intervention. Whatever you decide, make sure that your automation goal matches your operational needs, or helps you achieve the goal of expansion.
When you’ve settled on an automation goal that addresses key challenges in your facility, research the software, equipment, and machinery options that can help you attain it. As you implement them, use your data collection infrastructure and WMS to evaluate the impact of automation on your warehouse and adjust as necessary. By treating warehouse automation as an ongoing process rather than a single action, you can ensure your systems deliver their full potential for maximizing throughput, efficiency, accuracy, and productivity.
Leading vision software for pick and place automation
The quality of your chosen software has a huge impact on the outcome of your warehouse automation. Not all robotic automation solutions are a great fit for every warehouse, and you need to ensure the software powering these solutions will help you tackle the variability in your facilities. Furthermore, it is important to partner with a solution provider that will help design a solution to fit your warehouse’s unique needs.
Our robotic automation solutions are powered by PickOne vision perception software,the fastest on the market for automated warehouse picking and placing tasks. It delivers precise hand-eye coordination for logistic robots, meaning you can perform mixed parcel induction, depalletization, case transfer, and much more in record time with minimal errors. And if the software encounters a problem, our Yonder remote supervisor software allows an expert Crew Chief to offer a helping human hand to resolve the issue.
When your warehouse is ready to achieve sophisticated automation, request a demo of our PickOne and Yonder systems to discover how they support your automation goals.