Warehouse automation presents exciting opportunities for efficiencies and cost savings. That said, it comes in different shapes, sizes, and budgets.
A sophisticated warehouse automation project can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in systems and equipment. This presents warehouse owners with a problem:
Should they save money in the short term, but lose money in the long term? Or, should they use the “a stitch in time saves nine” philosophy and spend a little money now to save more money later?
Here’s the thing: automation does not have to be a zero sum game. In fact, when great business owners pursue improvement projects, they focus on specific areas where they can get the most bang for their buck.
This means that just because you’re not a mega corporation, doesn’t mean you can’t automate your warehouse. Also, you shouldn’t bankrupt yourself by trying to compete with the supply chain capabilities of a multinational like McDonald’s or Wal-Mart.
Any warehouse owner considering automation should:
- Think of their project in terms of workflow automation.
- Segment their business operations and consider how efficiently each process runs.
- Select an area where they see potential for improvement and automate that workflow.
Once you begin realizing cost savings from automated workflows, you can put the remaining funds toward automating your second biggest problem area. You’ll also be able to apply the lessons learned from that first project into your next project to make it run more smoothly. Over time, you’ll have automated your entire warehouse strategically and sustainably.
Here are the areas where you could start introducing automated workflows.
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Efficiency and Effectiveness Through Automated Job Creation
The point of jobs is to maximize warehouse workers’ efficiency and to use time effectively. For example, if there are a set of orders that need to go on the 2:00 P.M. outbound truck, they should be prioritized. If they’re scattered across a random list, like in discrete order picking, there’s a chance they won’t be picked in time.
Most warehouse management systems (WMS) allow warehouse managers to create jobs in the system. Workers come in at the beginning of the day, retrieve their jobs list, and proceed.
But, there are also WMSs that deliver automated job creation. The warehouse manager enters criteria, such as delivery location or delivery time, for job creation. When orders come into the warehouse system, the WMS automatically groups these orders into jobs based on the pre-defined criteria.
Automated job creation is a straightforward, cost-effective way to introduce automation and efficiency into your warehouse. Since there’s no physical equipment required, this type of automation causes little to no disruption to your day-to-day operations.
And, aside from teaching workers how to retrieve their jobs lists, there’s little training required, allowing you to quickly capture the value of the newly automated jobs lists.
Types of Order Picking (or something related)
In certain stock environments, like a store’s backroom or a small warehouse, picking or putting away items in a linear manner works. For example, if your order list for the day is 50 items, you could work down the list in whichever order they’re presented. This is known as discrete order picking.
There are no picking waves or schedules when a warehouse uses discrete order picking. Workers move through the warehouse with a sheet of paper picking the items they’ve been assigned to collect. But, the larger your warehouse becomes, the less sustainable this approach is.
In larger warehouses, where there are competing delivery schedules, delivery destinations, and customer types (e.g., B2B, B2C), warehouse managers may prefer to use different order picking strategies. They may also define job categories using all kinds of criteria. They may group orders based on what needs to happen (e.g., putaway, pick, pack), or by destination zip code, or delivery deadline, or that all items are located in the same section of the warehouse.
Walking Path Optimization
What’s motion waste? Motion waste is the inefficient movement of workers through the warehouse. It’s the time and money wasted when a warehouse worker takes 10 steps to carry out a process that could have been completed in three.
Motion waste isn’t due to inefficient workers; it’s due to inefficient processes. It’s up to warehouse managers to create an environment and to design processes that allow workers to better navigate the warehouse.
Walking path optimization is one way that leading warehouses cut down on motion waste. These companies study the layouts of their warehouses and their typical pick paths and then design more efficient routes for workers to take. Oftentimes, this is done with the help of technology.
Tech and the Pick Path in Warehouses
Some warehouses equip their workers with smartphones or tablets that hold the workers’ pick lists. Rather than simply providing a linear list and expecting workers to move through it, the device provides directions about which item to pick next in order to maintain efficiency.
The system considers a worker’s current location in relation to the next closest item on the list. So, if the worker just finished picking item 12 and item 32 is only a few steps away from the worker’s current location, they’ll be directed to pick item 32 next.
Other warehouses employ powerful picking algorithms for walking path optimization. A popular choice is the “ant colony” optimization.
This approach gets its name from ant behavior: When the first few ants in a colony leave in search of food, they take off in random directions. They leave a trail of pheromones so their family can follow. While they all may wind up at the same food source, there’ll be more pheromones left on the fastest route. As more waves of ants leave the colony, more ants take the fast route, optimizing the food hunting process.
Warehouse managers have applied this same logic to their walking path optimization projects. At the beginning of a shift, workers take off in random directions while their locations are tracked in real time. The workers who take the best route finish the work fastest and the next set of employees are dispatched down the same path.
Overall, walking path optimization improves warehouse operations by completing jobs faster, which impacts your bottom line. The faster items are picked, the faster they can get to customers. And, faster pick times means more orders picked and with fewer resources.
As an added benefit, walking path optimization helps improve the putaway process. An optimized putaway process has a positive impact on the rest of a warehouse’s operations. For instance, an optimized pick path means items are secured sooner, limiting the chances of theft, damage, or loss due to excessive time in the staging area. Moreover, the sooner items are put away, the sooner they can be picked and delivered to customers.
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Single Item Job Orders
A single item job order refers to the variety of items, not the number of items. In other words, you’re not picking one item (e.g., one orange). You’re picking a batch of the same item (e.g., 100 oranges). This sounds straightforward enough, but there are ways to optimize even single item job order picking (and packing!) within your warehouse.
With a WMS, you can automate the process of picking single item job orders. Here’s an example for picking XYZ widgets:
- Select an order (XYZ widget)
- Assign a specific task to this order (pick XYZ widget)
- Turn this activity (pick XYZ widget) into a warehouse job
- Create a mobile picking list for this warehouse job
Once this happens, a warehouse worker uses a mobile device to pick the items and automatically capture the job’s completion. By scanning the target location and job number, he or she can retrieve the task, scan the location and item details, and enter the quantity.
The WMS automatically captures that the right items have been picked from the right locations and in the right quantities. Moreover, the warehouse manager has visibility over all of these moving parts.
Single Item Order Packing Process
A WMS can also apply this workflow to the packing process for single item orders. Once an item is marked “picked,” you can carry out the following packing instructions in your WMS:
- Select an order packing operation
- Scan the packing station, shipment location, and start location (where you picked the order)
- Indicate that it’s a single item order in your WMS
- Select the package type and weight details (unless you already have the weight details in your item data)
Once these tasks are executed in your WMS, your workers can scan the items to pack. The carrier label and packing list get printed automatically.
By automating the single item picking and packing process, single item orders can be handled in homogenous batches. Since they aren’t mixed with other items, their labeling and packing is streamlined by the WMS and properly tracked throughout the process.
This is another automation that doesn’t require an upfront investment in physical equipment, although warehouses with room in their budgets can consider automated box packing systems or taping systems.
Multi-Item Job Orders
Using spreadsheets or paper to managing orders with multiple items isn’t a scalable practice for warehouse picking and packing. The likelihood of missing an item or including the wrong item increases the busier your warehouse gets.
If you want your business to grow, you have to please your customers. And if you want to please your customers, you have to deliver accurate orders no matter how complex they are.
A WMS gives you visibility over the entire fulfillment process, since it links directly to your e-commerce channels and marketplaces. This instant feed of information reduces the likelihood of data transfer errors.
Once you’ve created your picking list, you can begin the multi-item job order packing process using your WMS:
- Scan the packing station, shipping location, and start location (where you picked your order)
- Confirm that the automatically entered order code is correct (if necessary)
- Select the shipping option and package type
- Provide the weight details (if not already entered into the system)
- Scan the appropriate items
Once you start picking the order, the carrier label and packing list are printed automatically.
Can I Automate Workflows for Additional Variables?
Warehouses are organized differently depending on whether they serve a single customer or a wide range of customers. For instance, you may have to differentiate by SKUs in addition to UPCs. A UPC, short for Universal Product Code, is a company-agnostic, numeric descriptor that refers to the same product across different retailers.
Alternatively, a SKU, short for stock keeping unit, is assigned at the store level and can vary between different retailers.
Automating the workflow for picking and packing different SKUs or picking and packing different UPCs through your WMS gives you a single source of truth regarding the status of your various orders.
With a WMS, you can also create automated workflows for exceptional scenarios like oversized packages. In the past, it may have been necessary for a warehouse manager or supervisor to intervene and create a customized picking strategy for oversized items.
For example, this manager would need to assess how many of these items could be safely picked per worker in a set amount of time. By using “if/then” conditional statement in the WMS, warehouse managers can define rules to automate workflows for oversized items.
Making the Move from Automated Workflows to Automated Machinery
Automating workflows is the first step to a fully automated warehouse. It’s a quick win in your battle to overhaul inefficient process and optimize your operations. Once you’ve optimized these processes using your WMS, you can start looking at warehouse control systems (WCS) and warehouse execution systems (WES) to capture additional value from automation.
A WCS or WES can help you manage automated equipment like automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) or conveyor systems. While these are expensive investments, they can eliminate a lot of your warehouse’s manual material handling, which reduces the risk of injury among your workforce and reduces motion waste.
A Sustainable Approach to Automation Can Improve Warehouse Operations
Within any warehouse, there are countless opportunities for process improvements. But whether you want to improve tasks or overhaul your entire warehouse’s layout, it’s important to take a strategic, sustainable approach to your project. First, consider where your warehouse stands. If this is the first time executing an automation project, consider grabbing the low-hanging fruit by using a WMS to automate workflows and task management. Once that’s successfully accomplished, your organization can charge ahead with bigger and better warehouse automation projects.
Written by Ruthie Bowles
Ruthie is a content marketing consultant for Logiwa. Her specialties include small business development and inventory management.