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The old saying goes, time is money. While some time ago, embedding technology in the warehouse was a privilege of big companies, today small businesses can also afford innovation. The future of warehousing is automation. Every savvy business is looking for new ways to transform the supply chain, reinforce asset utilization, and boost productivity.

What is automated warehouse that will streamline the fulfillment handle, minimize the labor-intensive processes, improve accuracy, and help your business attain solid ROI?

What is Warehouse Automation?

Warehouse automation is the process of application of specialized storage, equipment, and retrieval systems to eliminate or minimize the labor-intensive processes that require repetitive physical tasks, human-held data entry, analysis, etc.

How automation works?

For example, in Alibaba warehouses, 70% of processes are held by robots. They are able to pick and carry up to 500 kilograms at once, moving inventory from one part of the warehouse to another, or to the shipping zone, updating all the warehouse records automatically. What is more, the robots are equipped with special sensors not to collide with each other and are able to recharge themselves by going to the nearest charging station so they don’t need any human assistance.

However, it’s a common misconception to answer “robots” to the “what is automated warehouse” question. Automated warehouse meaning goes far beyond robotics.

Automation in warehousing doesn’t necessarily require robotics or physical automation of warehouse. In many cases, automated warehouses just implement software to substitute manual tasks and improve the efficiency and accuracy of processes.

What is Digital Automation?

Digital automation in warehouse leverages software and gathered and thoroughly analyzed data to automate repetitive and strenuous tasks, boost productivity, and increase the safety and efficiency of operations. Let’s have a look at some of the digital warehouse automation examples.

Warehouse Management Software

A WMS is a software application that enables centralized task management. Such an app assists with inventory control to optimize space inside the warehouse, provides visibility of real-time inventory levels, assigns tasks in the most efficient way, processes orders, and ensures timely delivery of products.

The number of functions and the complexity of the WMS may vary depending on the needs and budget of the business.

Handheld Terminals

HHT is used for quick and effective data access, barcode scanning, and instant information updating. In the past, this device was used primarily by large companies though now it’s widely used in warehouses of different sizes due to its reasonable price and broad functionality.

ML Algorithms

Machine learning algorithms are very broadly used in what are automated warehouses today. They enable warehouse bots to choose the best picking and slotting routes, pick up the proper type of packaging depending on the size, weight, and shape of the item, generate and analyze large piles of unstructured data, make predictions about customer demand, delivery time, monitors the employees’ individual performance, accuracy, and much more.

What is Physical Automation in the Warehouse?

Warehouse physical automation is the process of improving workflows by minimizing employees’ physical activity. Robotic automation is one of the examples of physical automation in the warehouse.

There are plenty of advantages of physical automation, including enhanced performance, increased warehouse efficiency, scalability, and employee safety.

Though these systems are best suited for big organizations with large warehouses as they require high upfront and maintenance costs and specific equipment. Some of them are:

AS/RS Equipment

An automated storage and retrieval system is a complex of computer-controlled systems that automatically place and retrieve loads from required storage locations. The technology includes cranes, shuttles, vertical lift modules, and other systems that are integrated with WMS and WES.

There are many different types of such systems but all of them bring powerful benefits to warehouse operations, including the ability to reclaim unused vertical space, maximized inventory shortage density, and reduced labor costs.

Smart Shelving and Pallets

Smart shelves and pallets leverage RFID technology to track inventory in warehouses. With the weight sensors embedded in racks or underneath, they can track the sum of inventory sitting on the shelves. This way, warehouse managers can check inventory levels in real-time and know when the product is out of stock.

AGVs/ARMs

An automated guided vehicle is a pre-programmed vehicle that is used to transport goods in the warehouse and is usually guided by wires or magnetic strips installed on or under the warehouse floor.

An autonomous mobile robot can move items without any physical guides, just by using sensors and processors. This robot can learn the locations inside the warehouse and plan its route itself.

How Does Warehouse Automation Work?

Since we’ve already discussed what is automated warehouse, let’s see how automation works.

If you need to put 10k pairs of the same trainers into boxes, doing it by hand will take hours of boring work.

If you need to keep track of which items are moving in and out of your warehouse, and where specific inventory is located, it will require a dramatic amount of human labor and time.

                    
warehouse automation

That’s what are automated warehouses for. They automate documentation processes, hold repetitive and time-consuming tasks, and eliminate human errors and delays.

Types of Warehouse Automation Technology

There are a variety of warehouse automation types that assist employees or handle processes from end to end.

# Goods-to-person Technologies

Goods-to-person picking, also known as GTP, is a system that automatically transports an item to the operator or workstation, offering accurate inventory and pick data.

Usually, walking up and down the aisles and picking inventory takes up to 70% of operators’ time. GTP uses advanced technology for inventory storage and movement that incorporates high-density storage systems, horizontal and vertical carousels, palet-based or carton-based systems, vertical lift modules, and robots. Kiva, SmartCarrier, and TGW’s Commander are just a few examples of such.

The solution helps to significantly reduce operators’ movements in the warehouse, shortening the delivery time and eliminating the possibility of errors and accidents.

                    
goods-to-person technology

# Pick-to-light Systems

Pick-to-light systems are one of the most widely used types of automation technology in warehouses. It’s an order-fulfillment technology that leverages alphanumeric displays and buttons at storage locations to guide the workers in the processes of manual picking, moving, and sorting inventory.

After the operator scans item barcodes, the system’s alphanumeric display lights up and shows the path for the operator to the needed storage location. Following the illumination, the operator sees which items and how many of them they should pick. After picking, the inventory is placed in the holding container and a button is pressed to confirm the end of the procedure.

The technology offers big advantages to the warehouse automation process, lowering labor costs, ensuring greater order efficiency, and increasing order fulfillment performance.

# Voice Picking and Voice Tasking

The main goal of voice-keeping and voice tasking systems is to keep warehouse operators hands-free so that they can process any system tasks without distraction.

The voice-picking devices are connected to the WMS and convert the system’s orders into voice commands that are heard by operators in their headphones. When it’s performed, the operator verbally confirms the inventory movement and then data gets automatically recorded in the system.

Voice picking systems prevent occupational risks in the warehouse, make the picking process safer and more ergonomic, and boost the speed and accuracy of picking tasks.

# Sortation Systems

Sortation systems identify separate items on a conveyor system and divert them to the right locations, leveraging different devices that are controlled by task-specific software.

A series of algorithms, backed up with a precise hardware identifier, identify inventory on a conveyor system and redirect them to a required destination in the warehouse. Today, this technology is one of the most important and widely-used examples of warehouse automation, as they are able to quickly categorize item size, give better control over loads, parcels, and response rates, and greatly increase shipping speed.

Averagely, these types of warehouse automation technology can sort more than 400 items per minute and up to 27k items per hour.

# Collaborative Mobile Robots

Collaborative mobile robots are flexible and safe, designed to assist human workers while handling various warehouse tasks. Unlike some other technologies that might take months to be installed, collaborative mobile robots can be deployed within a few weeks.

Researches show that human-robot teams are 85% more efficient than robots or humans separately. Collaborative mobile robots are able to accurately locate and carefully pick objects, deliver them to the required destination, and operate much more quickly than manual picking and placing.

Though robotic types of automation in warehouse have one drawback — they are rather expensive.

How to Understand that You Need Warehouse Automation

Deciding if to automate your warehouse or not depends on many factors. Before making a final decision, companies must find out if there are any gaps in their current technology, carefully examine every supply chain process, and hire in-house expertise for independent feedback.

Try to answer these questions before opting for an automation warehouse:

  1. Are the inventory counts accurate?
  2. Do your customers receive their orders always on time?
  3. How labor-intensive are your current warehouse processes?
  4. Is your order fulfillment capacity increasing or decreasing?
  5. Do you still use outdated WMS and spreadsheets for inventory management?

Benefits of Warehouse Automation Technology

Numerous warehouse automation benefits make companies implement smart technologies in their logistics processes. The optimization of the first stage of the supply chain, allows businesses to maximize the performance of all the next stages.

                    
benefits of warehouse automation

# Efficient Goods and Equipment Inspection

When the inventory reaches the warehouse, it should be carefully inspected for damage and wastage. If the inspection is held manually, it takes a huge amount of time and has a risk of error. Though held automatically, the process is fast and error-prone.

IBM, for instance, leverages machine learning to automate these processes. With the help of IBM Watson’s Visual Recognition, the defects are spotted on-site without manual intervention.

# More Economical and Faster Production

One of the benefits of automated warehouse is giving warehouse managers the ability to have access to real-time data at every stage of production and shipment cycles gratefully to connected sensors, machine-to-machine communication protocols, and other technologies.

# Manual Labor and Human Error Reduction

With the help of technology, a large number of tasks get automated so businesses don’t have to hire more employees for the management of their warehouses. What is more, the implementation of technology enhances the training process so it becomes faster and easier. According to estimations, smart glasses and voice-driven guidance platforms reduce the time needed for full employee training from 60 to 41 hours.

# Enhancing Visibility and Transparency of the Inventory Process

Large warehouses can’t smoothly operate without smart warehouse management systems. Every single day new products arrive at warehouses, and they must be stored and organized. WMS gives full control over the inventory from receiving to shipping.

Computer vision recognizes quality issues in the assembly line. Every item is checked if its final look corresponds with the standard without manual intervention. With such automated analysis of defects and damages, the risk of delivering a defective item to the customer is eliminated.

# Increased Employee Safety

Automation greatly improves employee safety by eliminating or reducing repetitive and frequently-injurious tasks. Autonomous mobile robots, automated conveyor systems, and palletizers take up time-consuming and dangerous tasks while voice- and vision-directed solutions help to minimize human error and guide processes in extreme working environments.

Warehouse Automation Process

                    
warehouse automation process

What is the starting to end process for warehousing in logistics and what is process work in warehouse?

First of all, establishing an automated warehouse meaning a solid project plan with stakeholders involvement, thorough risk assessment, and a project schedule.

Begin with building a team supervised by project managers who will take responsibility for the project schedule and deliverables calendar. Next, define the process in which you will gather feedback from managers of different warehouses. Finally, decide on types of warehouse automation with examples that meet your business needs, customer demand, and of course, budget. And test them, and see how they work on other enterprises.

What Warehouse Processes Can Be Automated

                    
warehouse management system

Best Warehouse Automation Examples

So, what are the examples of automation in warehouses?

IKEA

IKEA Zagreb, Croatia, became the first IKEA store to implement an innovative warehouse automation solution that increases the store’s capacity to fulfill small home furniture e-commerce orders back in 2021. Thousands of IKEA’s most popular products are stocked in bins that can be automatically brought to IKEA employees in just 15 seconds. Their automated warehouse uses small, radio-controlled robots to get bins filled with various products. Compared to the standard IKEA warehouse, it can store up to 4 times more items using the same amount of space. Order completion time is not the only benefit this solution brings — warehouse robots are very energy efficient, 10 of them consuming the same amount of electricity as the average vacuum cleaner in your house.

                    
IKEA automation
Source: IKEA

Amazon

One of the brightest automated warehouse examples is, of course, Amazon. Amazon makes its bet on robotics, setting up a $1 billion industrial innovation fund to invest in fulfillment, supply chain, and logistics in addition to existing to its own robotics group. Recently they have introduced four new pieces of robotics technology, including autonomous robots and high-tech scanners. In addition to this, Amazon has already tested a new robotic work cell that is designed for moving heavy packages that weigh up to 50 pounds (ca. 23kg). This work cell uses artificial intelligence and computer vision to select the right package, lift it, and put it into a cart. Amazon’s scanning system uses AI and cameras running 120 frames per second to automatically scan goods or packages as workers move them. Those scanners operate in the background, which means that workers no longer need to use hand scanners to track barcodes.

                    
Amazon automation
Source: Amazon

How Much does it Cost to Automate Your Warehouse?

The warehouse automation cost greatly depends on how complicated and far-reaching it is. A large and sophisticated solution requires a lot of equipment and a more complex WMS system which requires more expenses. In return, such systems guarantee perfect order accuracy and space usage.

A single robotic arm can cost from $50k to $80k, controllers and app-specific peripherals cost from $100k to $150k.

Though there still are solutions that don’t cost a fortune and significantly improve the operations in the warehouses such as warehouse management systems. Some of the systems are free with monthly payments starting from $100 or you can design your own with a logistics software development company that will be tailored to the needs of your business.

Conclusion

Leveraging modern technology, companies can easily automate repetitive and strenuous tasks, saving time and effort of human employees for more complex tasks.

At inVerita, we believe that only the symphony of human and machine work can be a solution to most warehouse challenges.

You may decide to slow down and invest in one piece of equipment at a time or start with a custom warehouse management system if you don’t want to invest in complex automation immediately. But you can be sure that even making small steps in an automation warehouse will pay off with the right software development company by your side.

                    
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