Flexible Warehouse Automation Prepares for Unexpected

27th February 2024

Logistics BusinessFlexible Warehouse Automation Prepares for Unexpected

In his latest byline, Simon Jones (pictured), UK Sales Executive at Exotec, a global warehouse robotics provider, outlines how automated systems help mitigate against inefficient warehouse processes and shortfalls in times of fluctuating demand.

Consumer demand for products remained unpredictable throughout last year, plaguing the market with uncertainty. October 2023, for example, saw high streets slump to a 2.7% drop in sales volumes year on year, with Black Friday also quieter than in 2022. This defied some predictions, which suggested Black Friday 2023 could be the busiest ever.

Navigating the unknown in 2023 has left unanswered questions surrounding how to manage workforces, warehouse space and demand, making planning for 2024 and beyond a considerable headache for many companies. Logistics will play a key role in ensuring organisations are prepared for every outcome, with automated warehouse systems presenting an opportunity to establish greater resilience through their flexibility and consistent performance.

The limits of traditional automation

Automation in the warehouse has existed for decades, with the first automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) being deployed by German firm Demag in 1962. Since then, ASRS technology has undergone continuous development with the latest systems using robots to achieve high levels of flexibility, scalability and productivity, unfeasible for traditional fixed systems.

For example, the throughput capacity of traditional automation, such as shuttles and mini-loads must be fixed at the maximum forecast requirement when the system is installed. This means that for 90% of the year and for the first few years at least, the system will be operating at well below capacity. Many retailers have realised that more flexible systems allow them to install only what they need for the foreseeable future, because they can add temporary or permanent increases in capacity as and when needed in the future. This is a far more efficient use of capital expenditure and de-risks the investment significantly.

Since much of traditional automation was originally designed for store replenishment, shortfalls in its ability to meet omnichannel delivery requirements have become apparent. The growth of e-commerce has led to requirements such as same-day, even same hour, picking and shipping, creating a need for speed which did not exist in the days of purely in-store retail when the order to delivery cycle was a minimum of three days. With companies now operating e-commerce and in-store channels at the same time, expecting automation systems to deliver in both areas simultaneously is something only the most flexible systems can deliver. However, the benefits of both operations residing in a single system are huge in terms of space saving, inventory reduction and elimination of duplication.

How warehouse technology is evolving

The good news is that as needs evolve and pressure mounts for rapid order fulfilment, automation in the warehouse is increasing in sophistication. The advanced software in modern systems, for example, minimises order cycle times and ensures orders are ready for packing in a matter of minutes. These systems can safely scale racking up to 12 metres in height, meaning organisations can increase the storage density of their warehouses and address the problem of lack of space. The throughput capacity can also be increased rapidly with the addition of rental robots during peaks in demand so organisations can deal with uncertainty in a cost-effective manner.

Modern systems can also operate with no single point of failure: if one robot fails, the rest can dynamically adjust their workload, ensuring consistently seamless operations all year. The end result is better efficiency, accuracy and throughput capacity, both inside and outside peak periods.

Supporting humans, not usurping them

There remains scepticism that robots will take jobs from humans in the warehouse. However, their presence actually presents more advantages than disadvantages for human staff. ASRS robots, for example, help automate repetitive tasks, can handle heavy goods, and reduce the distance that staff need to walk around a warehouse during a shift. This creates a less strenuous, more rewarding work environment for staff and makes the role accessible to a wider demographic. As a result, human staff can focus on more technical and higher-value tasks in a safer environment.

On a larger scale, the presence of robotics benefits organisations from a recruitment perspective. When a peak period hits – whether expected or unexpected – pressure mounts on organisations to hire staff en masse, which can raise concerns surrounding labour procurement. The implementation of robotics balances much of this uncertainty. Businesses can forecast with greater confidence as they know they can scale their capabilities up or down at short notice, reducing the pressure to mass hire temporary staff in a tight labour market.

Demystifying demand

The year ahead holds many unknowns for warehouse operators, but the means to deal with surges and dips in demand are very much there. Businesses should evaluate where they are in terms of warehouse automation and consider how advanced robotics can make them a slicker and more adaptable organisation. If companies implement flexible warehouse automation now, they will be in a better position to serve the needs of both their customers and their employees in the long term.

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