Today, automated systems are everywhere and have become a natural part of our society. The history of warehouse automation started in the 60’s, with a rapid development into the fully automated warehouse of the 80’s – filled with stacker cranes and pallet conveyors. But what is warehouse automation today, moving far beyond just simple storage and retrieval?
To break it down, let’s start with what warehouse activities are really about. It’s about processes. On an aggregated level there are two kinds of warehouse processes that can be automated:
• The decision-making process
• The goods handling process
Decision making is about how you handle information to optimize warehouse processes, utilize resources, and decide where to store and how to pick. Goods handling is about how you move goods within the warehouse, all the way from inbound through storage, picking, packing, and outbound. Both of these processes can be manual or automated (or a combination of both).
Traditionally much of the process of warehouse automation has been about mechanizing the goods handling, making the level of automation a one-dimensional issue. But if we add the perspective of decision-making we actually get four possible levels of automation in a warehouse, in two dimensions.
Level 1: Low automation. Manual warehouses or warehouses using basic decision making automation to support warehouse processes.
Level 2: System automation. Warehouses using advanced automated decision making such as Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) to support warehouse processes. The WMS can be integrated to simpler equipment such as RFID technology, pick-to/put-to/pick-by light and voice picking, supporting more efficient decision making and picking.
Level 3: Mechanized automation. When decision making is automated the next step is to automate goods handling using conveyors, vertical lifts, and automated storage and retrieval systems. This level of automation is sometimes controlled entirely by the WMS, and sometimes with a WCS integrated with the WMS. If you have advanced business logic needs and/or a need to combine automated picking with manual operations (and you do not have a full-blown WMS that can handle these tasks), then a WES might also be needed.
Level 4: Sophisticated automation. The final level of automation is where warehouses use highly automated equipment for more complex goods handling flows to eliminate manual movements and to streamline order picking processes. This level of automation needs a WCS or WES that can handle complex decision-making logic to manage material flows of a mixture of individual items; cases and pallets. Typically, this material flow includes a mixture of equipment – AS/RS, conveyors, automatic sorters, AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles), robotic picking system and automatic palletizers that optimize the order fulfillment process.
Expectations on same day or next day deliveries put pressure on deliveries and your warehouse processes and supporting systems needs to focus on order fulfillment. We expect the market and demands from customers will continue to change and therefore it is important to design and build your automation solution with flexibility to be able to adapt to future demands that you are not aware of today.
Therefore, to make the most of your warehouse you need to have a deep understanding of how automation works and for which purpose you will use it. Only then can you find the right level and type of automation for your warehouse operation. Modern warehouses use a combination of manual and automated processes. A best-of-breed Warehouse Management System operating in real-time is the best way to run operations that mix manual and automated processes. Then you can be sure that the manual, decision making and goods handling automation will support order fulfillment in the right way at any given moment.