Dave Bull, business development manager at Dematic, explains how the profile of automation is changing as solutions offer greater accessibility, flexibility and resilience as well as a faster return on investment

Say the word ‘automation’ and many in the logistics world will immediately think of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS). This established technology allows for dense storage of both pallets via automated stacker cranes allowing heights of up to 40m and for smaller unit loads, such as totes or full cases, in miniload and multi-shuttle systems.

However the profile of automation is changing, particularly in retail. With most retailers now having some form of Internet business many distribution centres now serve multichannel retail operations supplying stores and internet orders, both to the customer’s home and as a ‘click and collect’ operation, where the online order is being picked up in the store.

So technologies that are likely to have an impact on automated warehousing over the next couple of years will be those that can provide solutions for maintaining high customer service levels in multichannel operations – particularly those that have increased their e-commerce volumes rapidly. These technologies include multi-shuttle systems. Although not new these systems are still very much an emerging technology and the uses for which they are deployed are constantly evolving. Very much interlinked with shuttle technology are the very high productivity ‘Goods to Person (GTP) stations’, which allow picking rates in excess of 800 lines per hour per operator. Both of these technologies are ideally suited to single item picking and therefore Internet retailing.

While picking has traditionally been the most labour intensive activity within a warehouse, and has seen the biggest efficiency gains through capital investment in automation, other areas are emerging that can give a good ROI as automation technology becomes more flexible and accessible. The packing process is one such area ripe for improvement, especially within e-commerce operations.

Improved accessibility

Automation is also changing its profile in terms of scale. Improved accessibility to automation means that the solution is no longer synonymous with large investment and systems integration. Entry level technologies such as voice picking or laser guided trucks can provide an almost instant win and a base from which customers can then ramp up the level of automation over the years as their business grows. These ‘pockets’ of automation, often referred to as ‘mechanisation’ can provide specific, immediate and obvious benefits such as a simple transport conveyor linking two processes or a standalone ASRS store for minimising the storage footprint. It has become essential for a systems integrator to offer these less complex systems, which are more attractive on a price point, in addition to having a capability to provide a fully integrated automated system.

Simple automated solutions

Dematic, for example, is well known as a large systems integrator but its products division, which offers customers simple automated solutions such as voice, conveying and pick to light, is thriving. These solutions can be implemented without major upheaval and require only a relatively small investment. If you can tell a customer that they will get their investment back in 12 months time and then reap pure profit, they will see opting for the automated route as less of a challenge.

These solutions also present an entry level development route for small companies on a growth path, allowing them to start with a relatively small investment in automation, such as voice picking, then graduate to warehouse management software before stepping up to a small conveyor system.

Total cost of ownership

When investing in any kind of automation it is vital to look at the total cost of ownership rather than just the initial purchase price.

To give the customer full visibility of the full life cycle cost of a system most service contracts are now negotiated as part of the main bid process. If you are investing a great deal of money in automation to improve material flows it is absolutely vital that downtime is minimised and peak performance maintained so that the systems deliver their full productivity, accuracy and cost reduction benefits and continue to do so well beyond the payback period. Today’s automated systems are hugely reliable yet any mechanised system needs to be regularly maintained and serviced to deliver optimal performance and uptime.

Automated warehousing systems will play a central role in the support of increasingly complex supply chains and will also form the foundation for future development. This means that making price-based decisions for short term savings by selecting automated solutions with reduced maintenance and service packages will only increase the risk of extended downtime and decreased productivity. Ultimately this will result in greater costs over the long term.

Successful businesses do not stand still and keeping up with growth-based change means keeping an eye on the future, particularly for a customer that has stepped on the first rung of ladder with their investment in simple automation. In a further example of how automation has developed, a systems provider should now continue to work in partnership with its client and anticipate any ongoing system and training needs as well as supporting requests for upgrades and modernisation.

It is important for customers to be able to speak through their account manager to somebody involved in modernisation and upgrades to discuss ideas and costs for such enquiries. By putting together a concept and costings and then explaining and demonstrating its features, benefits and the return on investment, they can help customers remove obsolescence and refurbish equipment to extend the life of their current systems to ensure they continue to meet business objectives.