With a rise in technology, there’s something else that takes up a sharp rise too – Customer Expectations.
Challenges faced in Warehouse Management
Customers order a product when in need of it and thus, expect it to be delivered just the other day. So, demand forecast and inventory replenishment are factors of paramount importance. Well, not just the e-commerce platforms but even the local stores need to have a close watch on their inventory. Even if a customer returns empty-handed once, it hinders the chances of retention of that customer. This can happen both because of the unavailability as well as the problem faced while locating the product amidst the piles of inventory present. When talking about managing such greater volumes of inventory with efficiency year-over-year, it will surely make you break a sweat too.
Now keeping all this in mind, a suggestion of an increase in the number of employees can be made, so that no customer is left unattended and inventory is managed properly. But, the cost of labour is expensive and unsatisfactory performances can again stand in the way. While I could list a few more issues here, I guess the idea is clear. Warehousing needs to effectively solve challenges quickly.
Automated Warehouses using Robotics and AI can be a solution.
Warehouse automation is a process wherein there’s a symphony of humans and machines to turn tedious and repetitive human tasks to machine-operated tasks. In the case of Physical Automation, tasks like inventory management – from the day it arrives to the day it is shipped – are done by Robots or Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and in the case of Digital Automation, tasks like data collection – of the inventory, shipments and stock replenishment – are done by automation software called IMS (Inventory Management Systems).
Warehouse Management Systems (WMS) can be of 2 types: Digital and Physical.
Automating manual processes using robotic systems generally comes under Physical WMS. Some important industry examples:
- Pick-to-light and put-to-light systems: While incoming inventory can make the storage place messy, locating required items can be a time-consuming process. Pick-to-light systems help the employees in picking the right number of items as required in the ordered list, with ease.
How does it work?
A temporary barcode of the list in hand is pasted on the cart – with a unique alphanumeric code. This list is scanned and then the number of items as mentioned in the list, are displayed on a LED plates over each section of items. With these highlighted LED plates, it becomes easier to pick the right item and thus a faster collection of the items when required.
Totally opposite to this process is the Put-to-light process, wherein a large number of incoming stocks are segregated as per customer orders. Out of the stock that was replenished in thousands, using the highlighted number on the LED plates as per particular orders – the employee can sort the items into different boxes that would then be used to fulfil particular orders.
These automated systems help reduce picking errors, increase efficiency by reducing time and enhances the labour-to-orders volumes.
- Goods-to-person (GTP) technology: The GTP technology generally includes machines and robots that bring the materials to humans for packing or dispatching. These machines travel around in the warehouse to collect as well as store the items in their respective places.
These GTPs mostly includes 2 systems:
a. Conveyor systems: The use of a conveyer belt to move around inventory in a warehouse isn’t something that is recently discovered. However, the use of the conveyer belts to segregate the item’s boxes using sensors and barcodes without human intervention can be included in modern developments. The use of them enhances the accuracy and time required in delivering items to the packaging, sorting and shipping areas.
b. Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS): The AS/RS systems are a part of the GTP technology which are generally used for storing the retrieving goods as and when required. These computer-controlled mobile systems are sturdy enough to lift loads weighing around half a tonne and transport them to storage racks reaching over 100 feet.
- Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV): AGVs are material carriers that roam around in the facility without any onboard drivers. These vehicles deliver material reliably and consistently to the production line, so the process happens smoothly. Barcodes stuck to the floor mark the routes, which are used by these AGV’s – so that they navigate without colliding with each other. These mobile robots make sure that the inventory from long-term storage is moved to forward picking locations.
Some popular AGVs in the market:
- Automatic Guided Cart (AGC): The AGCs are the types of AGVs use magnetic tape and/or sensor-based navigation systems that use AI, to navigate their environment. Without these carts, employees would have to manually push the cart from place to place.
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR): The AMRs are technologically advanced AGVs that are equipped with intelligent navigation capabilities. They use sensors and camera systems that enable them to detect and navigate around obstacles, while they mill about in the warehouse.
- Forklift and Towing AGVs: Forklift AGVs are designed to perform functions similar to human-operated forklifts. Towing AGVs are load-carrying vehicles that are non-powered, load-carrying vehicles that move around in a train-like formation. These are often used for transporting heavy loads over longer distances.
Apart from the barcode scanning and magnetic guide tape methods of navigation mentioned above, other methods of navigation include wired navigation, laser target navigation, vision guidance, and LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging). Read more about them here.
2. Digital WMS:
Automation software’s like the IMS, streamline warehouse operation using techniques like
a. Computer vision (navigation and stock management),
b. Machine Learning (communication and forecasting),
c. Deep learning (demand forecasting and stock replenishment), and
d. IOT (asset tracking)
AI solutions constantly monitor in-house operations – making sure that all the processes in production, supply chain and dispatch are working smoothly. As an extension to the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, the programs communicate with the database and other warehouse technologies, such as mobile devices, RFID tags and robots.
Computer vision systems help in stock counting and damage detection, reducing the chances of human errors. Apart from forecasting the future demand based on historic data, ML algorithms can also forecast the pallet movement on a particular day – which will help in estimating the labour requirement. Deep learning algorithms can enhance real-time operations of these integrated systems by constant analysis of data streams generated by the system, thus enhancing performance. Tracking the assets within the warehouse from the stocking day to the shipment day can be done using IOT. A report can thus be generated to help the employees keep track of particular asset movement.
Worldwide spending on automated warehouse technology is expected to touch $22.4 billion in market value by the end of 2021 – Westernacher Consulting.
Major transformations using Digital WMS:
- Productivity: Organizing inventory every time there’s re-stocking can be a hectic task, which reduces productivity. Through digital WMS, you can have precise inventory control by scanning tags through computer vision. AI-powered robots can also determine the shortest possible routes to stock items, thus more work in lesser time. With constant communication between the system and individual bots, collisions can be avoided and bots can use the fastest and unique routes.
- Accuracy: Another key element in WMSs is accuracy. In the ecosystem of connected devices, the tracking of items within the warehouse accurately can be made possible using the IOT feature in digital WMS. Also, the probability of a machine error is far less than human error. With this kind of accuracy – transparency in the process, reduction in cost leaks and better throughput in operations are imminent.
- Safety: In warehouses, injuries may not seem like a major concern, but it is. In 2019, serious injuries did occur at Amazon sites, wherein an ambulance was called around 600 times in a year. AI solutions can also assess the risk score of activities through analysis, which can come in handy. By using that analysis, the robots can take over the high-risk work and humans can carry out safer tasks. Also, with the use of technologies like Virtual Reality and Augmented Realities for training, employees can be well informed of the SOPs.
While there are a lot of advantages of automating your warehouse, here are some noteworthy advantages:
- ROI: ROI with the implementation of these systems, is expected in months rather than years. You get a high throughput without increasing the headcount. A reduction in errors including cost leaks is evident.
- Efficiency: You get an efficient machine flow in confined spaces and also inventory management is optimal. With machines doing most of the repetitive tasks, less worker strain and fatigue can be observed. The order processing time is lesser than before. Space optimization is an added advantage to these.
- Ease and Security: Faster Logistics software ensure transparency in the process. Also, operations can be scaled as business priorities change. Fewer injuries and shipping mistakes are observed with increased accuracy.
The automation industry is at a rapid pace and will always be. But instead of rushing into staying at par with it, industries should take into consideration important factors like budget, floor plans and volume to sale ratio. This is because, for high-volume warehouses and distribution centres (DC), the ROI can be promising but for smaller businesses, the failure rate can be higher in case of even a small mistake. So, Physical WMS is more suitable for DC enterprises because of its cost expenditure and Digital WMS beginning with easier software can be suitable for smaller businesses in the beginning.