Automation in the Warehouse: It’s All About Capacity

Automation in the warehouse is essential to meeting the growing demand of e-commerce and the blending of traditional supply chain channels into the omnichannel supply chain. Unfortunately, warehouse capacity around the country is tight, but available capacity is only being used at rates shy of 70 percent. How can warehouse capacity be both tight and utilized less than 100 percent? To answer that question, let’s go back to how the addition of automation in the warehouse changes the game and enhances the use of available capacity.

Warehouse Capacity Is Tight

Warehouse managers have made great strides in implementing systems that utilize automation. Automated storage and retrieval systems, robotics, smart conveyors, and more have replaced many of the manual, repetitive processes of human labor. However, most warehouses continue using human labor for pick-and-pack processes, says Robotics Business Review. This need for human labor in the era of automation continues to shift, and human processes may be partially responsible for poor capacity utilization rates.

Average warehouse capacity utilization among manufacturers sits at 68 percent, reports Roberto Michel of Logistics Management. Capacity among distribution centers has slipped 1 percent to 66 percent this year as well. These statistics can change as automated systems are brought online to further assist human operations, such as pick- and put-to-light systems.

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Automation in the Warehouse Increases Capacity by Streamlining Order Cycles

As noted by Steve Banker of Forbes, the most significant potential of automation in the warehouse lies in streamlining order cycles. Information within a modern WMS can be leveraged in conjunction with information for carriers, labor, orders, and returns to refine existing processes. For instance, an event system with 500 potential tasks could theoretically lower that number of tasks to do this instant to 50. Diverting the other 450 tasks mean pre-planning the orders to still meet the expectations of customers without placing an undue burden on the capacity of warehouses and their workers.

How to Use Automation to Augment Capacity

Warehouse managers can successfully use automation to augment physical capacity and labor capacity in these ways:

  1. Reduce lead time by automating putaway and using innovative shipping strategies, like cross-docking. Furthermore, warehouse managers can take advantage of drop shipping offers from manufacturers to eliminate capacity needs.
  2. Drop orders in the right warehouse for that specific order. The closest warehouse is not necessarily the best warehouse. Warehouse managers should use automated systems to determine the best warehouse and fulfillment center, including the use of a storefront-as-a-distribution center.
  3. Speed picking-and-packaging processes with automation. This will be one of the most accessible areas to tap into the value of automation, and it will include the use of new 2D barcodes, augmented reality, voice-assisted technologies, and more.
  4. Leverage order streaming technologies. The ability to continuously release orders throughout the day, eliminating waves, can help warehouses struggling to meet capacity fulfill more orders. There will be times when releasing orders in a steady stream will be ineffective to meet total need, like peak shopping seasons, but it can augment existing wave order processing through automation. This will eliminate the traditional peaks and valleys with shipping.
  5. Take advantage of robotics. The final step is taking advantage of robotics. Robots do not get tired, do not complain, and do not call in sick. Their only need is for a robust preventative maintenance program, but robots do require the use of integrated, automated systems in the first place.

Take Advantage of Automation in the Warehouse in Your Facility Now 

While warehouses across the country struggle to meet capacity and demand contributed to through the e-commerce revolution, automation holds a solution. Although automation often applies to the physical capacity within a warehouse, it also applies to the management of labor resources and other areas such as transportation management. Warehouse managers need to seriously rethink their use of automation to include all possible processes, from manufacturing to last mile delivery, and managers should follow the tips outlined in this article.

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