Automation in logistics used to be about reducing labour costs and compressing warehouse space. Now it’s more about helping companies meet demands for ever-shorter lead times to turn logistics into a competitive advantage.

Delivering faster requires a degree of automation – there’s only so much you can achieve with more manpower. However, you need to strike the right balance between people and technology to get the best out of what automation can offer.

These 4 questions will help you work out the best approach for your business.

How fast is your business changing?

When we talk about change, we’re not just talking about product range. We’re talking about ordering patterns and sales strategy. Omnichannel retailing means more and more stock goes to distribution centres instead of stores. With demands for ever-faster delivery, retailers are moving away from large warehouses towards a greater number of smaller, inner city locations. Distribution centres are taking on everything from inventory control to picking.

Similarly, more and more processes are completed in the warehouse, such as setting up kitchen appliances, inserting pre-paid cards in phones or flashing operator specific features.

When making decisions around automation, you need to consider how these and other trends will affect your business moving forward. If you introduce too much automation – or the wrong type – you can find yourself in a situation where you struggle to adapt to rapid changes.

Consider how mature your current operation is, and take a progressive approach that gives you the flexibility to evolve.

How diverse is your product range?

Achieving close to full warehouse automation depends on the products you handle. The more uniform the range, the more you benefit from automation.

For example, bulk goods like toilet paper are ideal for automation because they’re easy to handle and don’t have many SKUs. A person only needs to handle the product at entry and exit points – and even that can be automated.

If your product range is diverse, you need people supported by technology. Solutions like mobile voice systems help ensure fair order assignment, improve work ergonomics and manage single and multi-order batch picking. Similarly, automated solutions that bring the shelf to the picker go a long way to optimizing the picking process.

How do health, safety and environmental considerations affect you?

Many countries have health, safety and environmental regulations affecting warehouse operations. For example, in Denmark companies must comply with a maximum pick weight per day. Automating picking and handling for heavy items helps keep workers safe while boosting productivity and reducing costs.

How easily do your systems integrate?

If you implement systems in isolation you will face problems. Think in terms of an integrated solution, not islands of automation. Otherwise, you can find your systems working at a net loss because one system works at 120% while another works at 79%.

When you look at the complete picture, you can define flow types and prioritise them. Then you can control the mix of manual and automation, choose the best system for the total flow and ensure you have the technology, process and data integration that generates the most value from your operations.

Move from cost savings to value generation

You can distil these 4 considerations into one: how you look at logistics.

Man v. machine is a mindset. If you look at logistics just in terms of cost savings, you risk limiting your flexibility and hitting a ceiling in terms of what you achieve. But if you consider it from a value generation perspective, you can introduce integrated processes that empower staff, make it easy to scale operations, and deliver a sustainable competitive advantage.

Warehouse Automation Experts Mikael Brorsson and Claes Jönsson

Mikael Brorsson is Product Manager for Consafe Logistics Astro WMS
Claes Jönsson is Automation Expert at Consafe Logistics.