The intralogistics sector is in a euphoric mood. Every step in warehouse management is checked to see whether and how processes can be supported by machines or completely taken over by robots. Yet with all the progress euphoria, this begs the question: at what point is automation really sensible?
Automation: its weaknesses …
The biggest disadvantages of the current automation technology are on the one hand the limitation of flexibility, and on the other hand high investments. Once implemented, technology specifies which packaging types and therefore also which articles can be processed in a warehouse, in the long term. Specifications include e.g.
- type and quality of loading devices and product packaging,
- and much more.
At the same time, the location of automated systems such as high-bay warehouses or automated small-parts warehouses determines whether and how a logistics property can further develop. It should be noted that not only the procurement of the technology itself, but also subsequent changes could require significant investments. The best way to avoid problems here is to create a master plan. Such a long-term site development concept takes into account the development of the system, as well as the total logistics. Overall, it can be said that automation in intralogistics has significant long-term effects. For this reason, a precise analysis is advisable in all cases. It offers the opportunity to determine where and when automation would be sensible and economically viable.
… and its potential
In spite of the disadvantages, which should be taken seriously, automation offers significant optimisation potential for intralogistics. Used cleverly, it can be the better option, both qualitatively and economically. Reasons for creating highly automated warehouses are for example the necessity for compact storage, high throughput, long in-plant transport routes, high consolidation effort or the need for ergonomic working conditions. However, for many logistics processes, partial automation of specific work steps is the better solution.
Lack of space, need for energy efficiency, etc. require compact storage
There are numerous situations, which make compact storage necessary. This primarily includes lack of space. Obstruction of premises and lack of expansion possibilities onto neighbouring properties force companies to go higher (or deeper) with their logistics. Automated systems are often superior to manual solutions at this point because of:
- the structural limitations of manual systems,
- the speed of automated logistics technology
- and much more.
Also, automated warehouses often prove to be the more economical alternative to operating an additional site.
Even in temperature-controlled warehouses, compact storage is particularly advisable. Reducing space in refrigerated warehouses and deep-freeze warehouses leads to significant energy savings. This is an advantage both from an economic and ecological point of view.
A strong argument for automation is high throughput figures. From a certain size, many processes can no longer be operated without technical support. For any facilities that repeat the same processes at a high cycle rate or that are operated in several shifts, automation technology is worth considering.
Caution is advised at high peaks. One reason for the sometimes significant costs of automated systems is that they always have to be dimensioned for peak times. In contrast to manual processes, dynamic capacities – e.g. storage and retrieval machines – cannot be increased or reduced as required, in order to work as economically as possible. In spite of a high total throughput, automation can therefore be the more expensive solution due to the peaks.
Long routes always put a strain on warehouse productivity. As a result, automation is often a good solution, even for smaller processes. Whether conveyor belts or automatic guided vehicle systems should be used instead of logistics staff depends on the quantities, spatial conditions and other individual factors.
As a rule, extensive consolidation requires plenty of space and staff. Often, it is therefore worth it for companies to use shuttle systems or sorters, which could take on buffer and sorting functions. They usually require less floor space than manual consolidation areas.
Working environment and ergonomics
More and more companies invest in ergonomic working conditions for their logistics department. The reason for this is not an ageing logistics workforce, but also the difficulty in employing new staff. Across all ages, staff increasingly expect physical strains to be reduced in a modern work environment, using technology. Employers can also benefit from such an investment. Improved working conditions usually reduce sick leave, improve work quality and facilitate recruitment.
The technical possibilities to optimise the working environment in intralogistics are extremely diverse:
- Weight: delivery of heavy stock keeping units (SKUs) to stationary workstations according to the “goods to man” principle, supporting manual lifting procedures with stationary gripping devices, palletisation and depalletisation of containers or boxes using robots;
- Heights: individual standing positions and reduction of strains during handling and lifting due to height adjustable workstations;
- Temperature: automated retrieval systems replace manual picking from deep freeze warehouses.
Result: Automate cleverly
Whether conveying technology, automated warehouse or robots in intralogistics become money pits or productivity drivers, depends on how they are used. Overtechnification can restrict the flexibility of a logistics process and lead to unnecessarily high investments. Used cleverly however, automation offers the possibility to eliminate weak points of manual processes, and improve productivity.