In recent years, automation has become a central component in a variety of industries, replacing or augmenting human employees. According to a Forbes article, warehouse automation is becoming increasingly desirable. The article claims that automation is the “future” of warehousing.
However desirable, automation in any industry is often debated. Is a shift towards automated processes entirely positive? Are there any downsides to automated warehouse systems?
We think there are two sides to the automation story, and both should be explored. In the following content, we explore the pros and cons of automated warehouses systems, beginning with the most common types of warehouse automation seen today.
Types of Warehouse Automation
By definition, warehouse automation is the process of automating repetitive or error-prone tasks instead of human employees. The prospect of consistent and accurate tasks is attractive to business owners always seeking increased effectivity and efficiency – for some companies, automated warehouses systems are the answer.
- Automated vehicles, such as pallet jacks or forklifts, replace human drivers, often following specific, preprogrammed paths within a warehouse. Automated vehicles can often be programmed to function without many layout changes to a warehouse, making this system attractive to warehouse leadership who are hesitant to make significant changes. Programmable vehicles are called Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV).
- Automated inventory management is often implemented to reduce human error. Many inventory management systems are outdated, furthering increasing the potential for mistakes.
- Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are also implemented to eliminate human error. Storing and retrieving items is a time-consuming, repetitive, and detail-oriented! Thus, human employees must remain vigilant. AS/RS systems are programmed to grab the right goods every time, increasing the number of accurate orders.
The following pros and cons apply to most automated warehouse system; however, we will often refer to automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), because these are one of the more commonly integrated tools in warehousing today.
Pros of Automated Warehouse Systems
1. Increased Productivity & Reduced Costs
Automated warehouse systems work with consistent and increased efficiency, boosting warehouse productivity. Productivity, of course, leads to reduced variable costs, such as manual labor for basic, time-consuming tasks or storing and retrieving products.
As mentioned, AS/RS systems also increase order accuracy. Human error, though inevitable with employees, is costly. Thus, reducing mistakes results in immediate cost savings.
Additionally, as manual, simple tasks are completed by automation, human employees are freed to complete high-level tasks.
2. Keep Your Existing Infrastructure
Some systems, such as AGV, can be programmed to work within your existing warehouse layout. Nothing about your current operations would require adaption, beyond adjusting to an automated system claiming certain processes in place of human employees.
3. Better Use of Space
Warehouses have limited space. Systems and processes that efficiently utilize available space are valuable. For example, nesting pallets organically use space efficiently. For businesses that are willing to adjust the layout of their warehouse, AS/RS systems can be utilized in narrow aisles, allowing for increased storage space without facility expansion.
Cons of Automated Warehouse Systems
1. Capital Investment
Automated technology is a large capital investment. Business owners may be hesitant to purchase a system that is new, somewhat untested, and expensive. As a long-term purchase, automated warehouse systems certainly show return. However, short-term ROI is not as apparent.
Along with purchasing the system itself, warehousing automation requires onboarding. Employees must be trained to operate the system properly, and the system itself must be programmed to function effectively in the specific warehouse space.
Beyond initial installation and implementation, AS/RS systems require maintenance. If the system breaks down, a specialist often has to complete the repair. Operation downtimes can be costly as well.
These investments counteract some of the savings acquired from reducing human staff and optimizing processes.
2. Lack of Adaptability
As mentioned, automation is most often implemented to replace simple, repeatable, time-consuming tasks – in any industry. In a warehouse, changes to inventory or warehouse layout would require reprogramming the AS/RS system. In a warehouse with consistent products and layout, adaptability is not a concern.
3. Workforce Considerations
The first major workforce consideration involves job elimination. Though humans still claim the majority of jobs in warehousing – and likely will for several more years – automation will certainly reduce the number of jobs available to humans in the warehousing industry.
Safety is another workforce concern – though a bit debated. Robotics are relatively new inventions! Thus, OSHA has not had much time to develop guidelines for warehousing staff working alongside automated warehousing systems. OSHA hasdeveloped guidelines for warehousing staff manually operating machinery like forklifts.
One distribution resource negates this concern slightly, writing: “because many of today’s warehouse systems pick and bring products to employees, eliminating the need for workers to travel through the warehouse themselves, automation may actually improve workplace safety for some tasks.”
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