Automation in the supply chain is the name of the game today, but as with any modern technology platform, it comes along with its fair share of challenges. In this article, we’ll define distribution automation using a series of examples, and then discuss key challenges (plus how to avoid them!) that customers face when deploying automation in their businesses.
Understanding Automation in Distribution Operations
As you look out across your distribution warehouse, what do you see? Do you see nothing but pain points such as congested traffic aisles and wasted racking space, or do you see pride points like brightly lit docks and cheerful employees? What you see and feel first says a lot about how you approach challenges in your distribution business – either by focusing on opportunities yet to be tackled or relishing the success of challenges already overcame. No matter what, the impetus to improve distribution operations is ever constant, and warehouse automation is more and more proving to be the first toolkit of choice in pushing towards that next optimization goal.
Specific to material handling projects, automation offers three main tools in the toolkit:
- Software Solutions – software technologies that monitor, record, analyze, and provide decisions using operational data coming directly from the warehouse floor.
- Hardware Solutions – physical equipment and infrastructure that can replace human work with mechanized activities.
- Integrated Solutions – systems that combine both software and hardware elements to handle large-scale workflows based on data-driven decisions, all with minimal human involvement.
Sound a little dry and technical? Let’s give examples:
Software Solutions include computer application packages such as a Warehouse Management System (WMS), Inventory Management System (IMS), and Labor Management System (LMS). These applications gather, compile, and pick apart data to provide detailed insight that management can use to make informed decisions. This helps answer questions such as: where can we gain efficiency, reduce overhead, and cut out unnecessary work in our operation?
Hardware Solutions are a bit easier to visualize – conveyors, pallet wrappers, case packers, pallet elevators, autonomous forklifts, and bin carousels are good examples. Any equipment that can perform a task in place of human labor qualifies.
Integrated Solutions bring both of the above worlds together. The pinnacle example is an AS/RS, or Automated Storage and Retrieval System. An AS/RS uses mechanized pallet storage, conveyors, automated carts and lifts, scanners, readers, and quality inspection instruments, all controlled by very robust Warehouse and Inventory Management software. Humans might unload incoming trucks into the AS/RS, and the system does the rest to move, store, track, inventory, and monitor these goods in the warehouse until they’re needed to ship out. When called for, the system will pull these inventory units (i.e., pallets, totes, etc.), move them to a position for humans to load into trucks, and update inventory records as it goes.
Overcoming Challenges in Distribution
With the stage all set above, let’s discuss the key challenges that customers face when considering rolling out automation for their own operations. While the challenges may be many and at times very complex, there are solutions, which is precisely when pairing up with an experienced material handling technology partner such as Fairchild Equipment pays off the most. Here are a few of the largest challenges we have seen recently, split up by when they’re encountered within a project – at the early design stage, mid-way during implementation, or down the road during actual operation.
- Quantify the Actual Need
- Challenge: with warehouse automation, we must be realistic and visceral with our expectations. Right out of the gate, managers have to commit the necessary attention to properly measuring, documenting, and communicating the real project at hand. For example, a recent client presented us with a project charter to deploy labor management software, thinking their high overhead was due to inefficient labor performance, where after further evaluation it was actually poor inventory control that was at fault.
- Solution: perform or outsource a professional audit to properly quantify the project at hand, and model potential solutions to forecast results before proceeding further.
- Balance Digital vs Physical Constraints
- Challenge: especially with integrated solutions, the balance between software and hardware portions of the project can deliver different outcomes, each at potentially widely varying costs. Different projects will call for different balances, and external factors can further drive a distinct balance that may not be immediately obvious. For example, when a high-pile racking hardware solution is desired, but local city regulations limit building heights, forcing the project towards a software solution instead.
- Solution: gather and rank your project’s specific constraints across the board, including building, utility, local regulatory, personnel, financial, timeframe, customer, operational, and stakeholder elements.
- Coordinate, Coordinate, Coordinate!
- Challenge: deploying new projects can be exhilarating for the project team but can be a full-blown nightmare for your distribution center’s operations team. Downtime, work interruptions, personnel schedule changes, safety risks, site traffic disruptions, on and on – risks are abundant with rolling out major new systems. In many ways, the risks are even higher with software-centric solutions, where data corruption, interruption, or complete loss can be debilitating to an organization.
- Solution: simply, project teams must plan for, and actually perform, massive amounts of coordination work. Detailed execution planning, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis, scheduling, resource management, and communication channels have to all be in play long before ground breaks.
- Sudden Realizations
- Challenge: at some point in one’s career, they will be in the middle of a project, usually far past easy change points, and have the sudden realization that they missed a key requirement or opportunity. Sadly, there is no magic way to resolve a major miss, especially once implementation is underway. This fact of project lives can stall entire teams out of fear of making wrong decisions.
- Solution: incorporating flexibility into the initial design is part of the answer, but specific to the implementation phase of a job, the best benefit is achieved via sequenced roll-out and commissioning. Way ahead of full deployment, project rollouts should include FATs (factory acceptance tests), digital simulations, isolated key-component performance tests, SATs (site acceptance tests), and finally, substantial field commission periods. These implementation steps allow key points in which ‘sudden realizations’ can occur, issues can be caught, and course corrections made with contained risk exposure.
- Perfect Adoption
- Challenge: spoiler alert – perfect adoption of a project is essentially impossible. Not every employee is going to ‘get it’, not every manager is going to agree with the direction taken, and not every mechanical or data system is going to perform flawlessly. Over time, things are going to break down and need maintenance, personnel are going to resist doing things ‘by the book’ as they learn shortcuts, and new managers are going to push for ‘their way’.
- Solution: while never perfectly solvable, upper management can successfully mitigate adoption issues over the long haul. Outsourcing system maintenance and service can move a big chunk of adoption pressure to functional experts who have no motivation to resist. Further outsourcing system administration can also hedge against internal shortcuts and ‘my way’ processes being picked up. And lastly, consistent refresher training, employee engagement, and 360° feedback assessments can go a long way towards helping employees see the value of newly deployed automation.
- In-Situ Changes
- Challenge: after living with a new hardware or software system for a while, inevitably changes are desired. This is partially a design challenge in making sure that new technologies are configured with future changes in mind, but for the sake of this point, we assume this was considered and that the system can technically accept changes. The real challenge here is deploying the change proficiently into a live operation. Sometimes the change is just procedural, and other times it involves physical modifications.
- Solution: minor changes can be rolled out behind the scenes with limited outward communication, in which case we always recommend starting with thorough documentation, backups, and contingency plans. For larger changes that will impact front-line workers, we suggest at minimum tracking against a detailed communication plan (including re-training), and at most, to roll out changes as their own full-blown projects complete with upfront analysis, installation coordination, and even more thorough communication.
We hope that this discussion has been helpful to your commercial material handling needs. Fairchild Equipment is the Upper Midwest’s premier Material Handling Equipment and Service resource, with headquarters in Green Bay, Wisconsin, and 11 locations in 5 states ready 24/7 to serve your needs. For more information or to discuss which Warehouse Optimization solution might be best for you, please visit one of our locations, send us a message, or give us a call at (844) 432-4724.