(photo: Cleyder Duque)
08.07.2021, 14:23

Automating Warehouse Operations

Facilities Management, Transport & Logistics, Retail, Automation & Robotics

Paul Freeman, managing director of Toyota Material Handling, explains why SME warehouse operators and e-commerce retailers are increasingly deploying automated intralogistics technology in response to demand for online shopping.


With developments in technology leading to the emergence of flexible and scalable products that deliver a notably faster return-on-investment than the type of often costly fixed assets that, at one time, were considered central to any automated warehouse project, more and more companies are choosing to automate part, or - in some cases – all, of their intralogistics processes.


Indeed, such is the willingness to embrace automated hardware and the software systems that drive it, that, according to a recent report on the warehouse automation market by Interact Analysis, the sector is set to see a period of exponential growth, with global sales forecast to climb 6 per cent by 2023.


Although automated storage and handling solutions were already high on the logistics industry’s agenda before Covid-19, there is little doubt that the increase in automated warehouse activity can, in part, be attributed to the social and economic fall-out from the pandemic. The global health emergency and the subsequent collapse of bricks and mortar retailing, has forced many companies to accelerate their existing intralogistics project plans or even change their strategy completely. 


But it isn’t just the likes of Amazon and Alibaba that are embracing automation: many smaller companies for whom automated solutions would, until relatively recently, have been financially out of reach, are now benefitting from the operational gains that today’s highly cost efficient automated systems offer and, as a consequence, the profile of the typical automation user is evolving.


Small and medium sized warehouse operators and e-commerce retailers faced with a need to reconfigure their operation to comply with new workplace social distancing rules or, perhaps, requiring a faster or more accurate order picking regime to ensure that they meet their next-day delivery promises, now see automated handling and storage technology as the optimum solution to their issues. 

Key factors

Several key factors are driving the growing market for automated handling solutions. Firstly, there is a shortage of skilled people to operate forklifts; secondly, the operational cost of automation is usually lower than manually-operated processes; and, thirdly, in this era of e-commerce there is a need for streamlined delivery, which forces logistics providers to plan and predict their logistics flows more consistently to achieve next-day or even same-day delivery.


Furthermore, because automated guided vehicles follow the route around the warehouse that they have been programmed to follow – unlike most operator-controlled forklifts where the temptation to take a potentially dangerous ‘quick cut’ is, it seems, omnipresent among some drivers – the likelihood of an automated truck damaging either the warehouse building, the storage system within it or the load being carried is virtually zero. This built-in safety functionality also means that the risk of the equipment causing injury to warehouse personnel working in the same area as an automated machine is minimal.


And, it is often overlooked but, in terms of environmental-friendliness, an automated guided vehicle uses less energy and can be expected to have a longer working life than a manually-operated forklift.


But, despite its myriad benefits, automation is not the answer to everything. Every logistics flow, every warehouse set-up and every supply chain is different and what works for one business may not be appropriate for another. 


So, is automation suitable for your operation? As a starting point, consider the following questions in relation to your facility:

-  Are warehouse-driven delays a common issue?

-  Do everyday workflows include a vast amount of manual, repetitive tasks?

-  Is output directly affected by limitations within the workforce?

-  Are inventory counts regularly affected by inaccuracies?


Anyone that answers ‘yes’ to any of the above, simply has to have automated solution technologies on their radar.


For example, take question one: are warehouse-driven delays a common issue? Without the right processes or machinery, problems with inventory tracking, picking, receiving and put-away can regularly halt the flow of goods through a warehouse. Automated vehicles can be programmed to ensure that the transported goods reach their destination within the store on time every time.


What about question two? Do your everyday workflows include a vast amount of repetitive tasks that are currently undertaken manually? Manual, repetitive tasks use up staff resources and effort and ensuring they are completed properly can waste valuable management time. As a result, focus can be lost and more important tasks may fail to receive the attention that they should to the detriment of the business.


Onboarding automated guided vehicles gives warehouse managers and logistics teams the peace of mind that comes with knowing that the step-by-step flow of materials will continue uninterrupted, leaving them free to focus on other vital tasks that require their expertise. 


Is output directly affected by limitations within the workforce?   Human error is a common issue and sometimes mishaps go unnoticed within the wider business. But, all too frequently, mistakes cause delays and impact negatively on profitability.


There is no 100 per cent foolproof way of guaranteeing that staff will not make mistakes, which is a compelling argument for introducing automation to those points in the warehouse flow process where errors are most frequent or particularly costly.


Are inventory counts regularly affected by inaccuracies? It is no longer viable to carry out manual inventory tracking. Improvements in warehouse management, such as integrated inventory management, mean visibility over inventory is easily accessed, reducing the amount of counting inaccuracies that can lead to misplaced stock. 

Predictable pattern

Significantly, adopting automation no longer requires every aspect of the warehouse or distribution centre to be automated – just the parts of it that will benefit most from the technology – and automating those aspects of the warehousing operation that follow a predictable pattern makes a lot of sense. 


Toyota Material Handling has successfully delivered more than 250 automated projects featuring over 800 automated guided vehicles across Europe. We work with our customers to determine the specific challenges they face and tackle them one step at a time. Breaking the process down into small modules gives clients essential scalability and means that, if they wish to, customers can partially automate their processes while retaining the option to introduce more automated technology as future demands change.


This way, introducing warehouse automation becomes a multi-phased project and by applying a systematic approach to identify a client’s most common intralogistics functions, as well as all aspects of the material flow process, Toyota designs systems based on the widest range of new technologies that fit a client’s needs and drive productivity, efficiency and lower overall supply chain costs. 


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