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Whether a manufacturer, a traditional retailer, or a dedicated eCommerce company, the task of managing soaring order volumes and meeting the ever-rising customer expectations remains a constant priority for any business. For warehouses and distribution centers (DCs), where service level agreements can either be met or missed, the operators tasked with managing everything are under relentless pressure.
High order volumes and the proliferation of SKUs translate to inventory management constraints, dwindling DC floor space, and the persistent push for more throughput. As a result, modern warehouses have already introduced or are introducing automation within their existing receiving and shipping operations.
Recently, nearly 1,000 of the world’s leading manufacturing and supply chain solution providers gathered at ProMat 2023 – one of the largest North American trade shows catered to supply chain innovation – to showcase what the future of the industry holds. Here are three major takeaways from this year’s show:
Companies look to automation – specifically mobile robotics – to ease labor constraints
In the past several years, companies have been increasingly eager to add automation and start taking steps toward digitizing and connecting DC operations. Innovations such as automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) – a scalable solution that maximizes floor space, increases capacity and reduces the strain on labor – are a logical entry point, helping to improve inventory management and address SKU proliferation, while avoiding capital investment for facility expansion by exploiting the unused vertical space in the warehouse.
Those operators more advanced in their automation journey are looking at robotics to help ease labor burdens, improve warehouse productivity, reduce or eliminate errors, lower operational costs, and stay nimble in constantly changing market conditions.
The evolution of robots designed for the logistics industry has been remarkable, going far beyond their original capacity to perform repetitive, pre-programmed tasks. The latest generation of smart robotics is capable of functioning autonomously, adapting to constant changes, and scaling operations up or down as required.
Autonomous mobile robots deliver various benefits by taking on some of the most labor-intensive warehouse jobs, from moving pallets, carts, or totes, to assisting human coworkers with picking and other operations. With the AMR market projected to grow to nearly $10 billion by 2030, companies are prioritizing investments that will increase efficiency and labor productivity.
Automation improves job safety and satisfaction
A recent report from Deloitte found that companies that implemented automated systems experienced an average productivity increase of 30%. However, one thing that was clear at ProMat this year is that the benefits of these systems don’t stop at productivity gains.
Integrating automation into the day-to-day warehouse operations may prove to significantly improve workforce safety and job satisfaction. By taking over strenuous and potentially dangerous tasks, as well as operating in hazardous or hard-to-reach areas of the warehouse, automated solutions can help reduce the risk of accidents and injuries, creating a safer, more positive working environment. Not only do automated solutions help make workplaces safer, but they can boost job satisfaction.
At this year’s event, companies showcased the ability of robotic depalletizers and unloaders to significantly improve safety in the warehouse. Robitic depalletizers take over the task of breaking down pallets, a common bottleneck within the warehouse. Robotic unloaders replace the need for workers to manually unload freight on the receiving dock, a job that is subject to some of the highest turnover rates in the warehouse due to the intense levels of manual labor required. Both solutions eliminate two of the most strenuous tasks in the warehouse, while simultaneously increasing productivity.
A Harvard Business Review study found that automation helped free up workers’ time to take on more interesting work that kept them engaged and motivated. This allows companies to shift increasingly scarce labor resources to higher-value jobs.
A survey from Salesforce revealed companies that implement automation into day-to-day operations have employees that are 89% more satisfied with their job and 84% more satisfied with their company. Further, 91% of full-time workers say automation saves them time and offers a better work/life balance. It’s clear that some workers see value in the productivity gains as well.
Automation interoperability still has a long way to go, but is possible
Warehouse operators may have rushed to automate their facilities to try and keep up with day-to-day operations. This could result in a disjointed array of systems and machines that fail to work together effectively. Now, these operators are staring down this challenge of integrating disparate systems and future proofing operations.
According to McKinsey Global Institute, the potential economic impact of automation in the global economy could be between $1.4 trillion and $2.6 trillion annually by 2025 if automated systems and technologies can work together seamlessly, and this is why interoperability is vital. Interoperability may be loosely defined as the long-term compatibility of automated systems and their ability to seamlessly work together and “communicate” effectively for maximum efficiency.
Luckily, there are solutions that can help toward the interoperability vision. These solutions function as a central system or “brain” to connect disparate systems and robotics, facilitate the seamless exchange of data and information, unify control of software and automated systems and offer an end-to-end view of warehouse operations to enable more informed decision-making.
Finding future success
The use of automation within the warehouse is critical if operators are to successfully meet the challenges of increasing consumer demand and labor shortages. Innovative companies are doing so to meet increasing order volumes, fill labor gaps, and handle dangerous, repetitive, and time-consuming tasks, thus allowing human resources to focus on more strategic jobs. To fully harvest the benefits of these investments, each piece of the automated puzzle must work seamlessly together.