Warehouse Automation: Types, Benefits, & More | Exotec

Warehouse Automation: Types, Benefits, & More

May 17, 2024

What is Warehouse Automation?

Warehouse automation integrates advanced technologies and systems designed to optimize and streamline operations within logistic centers. This broad field includes various automated equipment and software solutions, such as automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS), autonomous mobile robots (AMR), and robotic arms that manage the flow of goods while minimizing reliance on manual labor.

As businesses globally face increasing pressure to expedite delivery times, reduce costs, and improve accuracy, the relevance of warehouse automation has surged. It is now a critical component in modern logistics, enabling companies to meet rising consumer expectations and thrive in competitive markets. This introduction sets the stage for exploring the types, benefits, and practical insights on effectively implementing warehouse automation solutions.

The Evolution of Automation Technologies in Warehousing

Automation technologies in warehousing have dramatically transformed from basic mechanical tools to advanced robotic systems. This evolution reflects a trajectory towards increased efficiency, adaptability, and precision in logistics operations. Here, we explore three major phases of automation evolution:

Basic Mechanization

At the outset, warehouse automation was synonymous with basic mechanization, employing tools such as pallets, forklifts, and conveyor systems. Conveyor systems, for example, were revolutionary in the early days, simplifying the movement of goods and reducing manual labor. While once hailed as a groundbreaking automation solution, these systems, reliant on fixed mechanization, falter in delivering the flexibility essential for meeting modern demands. Consequently, their malfunctions can trigger significant operational disruptions. Although conveyors remain commonplace in warehouses, a growing number of businesses are actively working to reduce their dependence on them.

Traditional Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS)

The next leap in warehouse automation came with traditional ASRS, including mini loads and shuttle systems. For several decades, these technologies have significantly improved warehouse operations. By utilizing cranes and automated vehicles on fixed tracks, along with conveyance systems, these systems enable the transport of goods between storage racks and picking stations without the need for human intervention. This integration enhances the speed, storage density, and accuracy of storing and retrieving items, optimizing overall efficiency in warehouse management.

However, despite their improvements in throughput, traditional ASRS faced limitations. They are often rigid in their infrastructure, making expansion costly and complex. Moreover, with numerous points of failure and a heavy reliance on conveyance, these systems gradually became less viable, especially as warehouses sought more scalable and flexible solutions.

Robotic Goods-to-Person Systems

The future of warehouse automation is embodied in robotic goods-to-person systems, which offer the flexibility lacking in traditional ASRS. These systems are a subset of Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS). However, unlike their predecessors, robotic goods-to-person systems use individual robots operating independently instead of fixed tracks and lifts, thereby eliminating the single point of failure problem. These systems are designed for quick installation and seamless scalability as they operate storage and throughput independently. This results in reduced incremental costs and complexities associated with expansion. They leverage advanced algorithms to provide warehouse operations with unparalleled efficiency, responsiveness, and resiliency, aligning with modern demands for speed and flexibility.

Types of Robotic Goods-to-Person Systems

Floor Robots

Autonomous Guided Vehicles (AGV): AGVs transport goods across a warehouse by following marked paths or wires on the floor, using navigation aids such as magnet strips, wires, or cables. They can move pallets, storage shelves, or individual items efficiently.

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR): AMRs operate similarly to AGVs but navigate the environment without pre-defined paths, using sensors and cameras.

Pros & Cons: Both AGVs and AMRs offer quick implementation timelines and significantly improve warehouse operational throughput and accuracy. However, they generally provide lower throughput and storage density compared to ASRS. While AGVs are restricted to fixed paths, AMRs offer more flexibility by navigating freely, making them more adaptable to dynamic warehouse environments.

Robotic ASRS

Cube Storage: These systems organize goods into bins stacked within a cube-shaped storage structure. Robots operate on top of the cube and manage bin shuffling, sorting, and retrieval, delivering them to picking stations.

Mobile ASRS: Mobile ASRS systems utilize autonomous mobile robots that travel between storage racks and picking stations to store and retrieve goods. This category includes Exotec’s Skypod system, which is designed for agility and scalability.

Pros & Cons: Robotic ASRS solutions excel in flexibility, enabling rapid throughput increases by adding more robots or expanding storage racks with minimal disruption to ongoing operations. Despite being relatively new, these systems are becoming the preferred choice for warehouses needing agility and scalability to meet unpredictable future demands.

Implementing End-to-End Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation extends beyond ASRS and goods-to-person systems to include a comprehensive suite of technologies that can automate the entire process from inbound to outbound. Here we detail some key forms of warehouse automation that complement these systems to streamline processes and increase efficiency:

Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light Systems

Pick-to-light and put-to-light systems guide warehouse personnel during the picking and placing processes using visual cues. These systems utilize LED displays at storage locations to indicate the number of items to be picked or placed, significantly reducing errors and enhancing picking accuracy and speed. These systems ensure that workers interact with the inventory in the most efficient manner possible, further optimizing fulfillment times and reducing labor costs.

Weight Scales for Accuracy

Accuracy in warehouse operations is paramount, and weight scales play a crucial role in ensuring this accuracy. Integrated within the workflow, these scales verify the weight of items during both the inbound and outbound processes to detect discrepancies and prevent shipping errors. This verification step is helps maintaining quality control, reducing returns due to incorrect shipments, and enhancing customer satisfaction.

Document Machines

Automation extends to the realm of documentation through machines such as package labeling machines and document inserters. These devices automate critical aspects of packaging by generating and applying labels and inserting necessary documents, such as packing lists and receipts, directly into packages. Automating these tasks reduces manual errors, speeds up the packaging process, and ensures that all outgoing shipments are accompanied by the correct documents, thereby complying with shipping regulations and customer expectations.

Automated Packing Systems

Automated packing systems automatically select the appropriate packaging for each item based on its dimensions and fragility, fill the package with the right amount of dunnage, and seal it for shipment. By optimizing the packing process, these systems not only save material and reduce waste but also ensure that products are securely packaged for transit, minimizing damage and returns.

Robotic Picking Arms

Robotic picking arms enhance warehouse automation by boosting both speed and reliability in the picking process. Equipped with advanced sensors and technology, these arms identify, pick, and place items, making them ideal for environments requiring high volume and variety. When integrated with ASRS, robotic picking arms increase throughput, reduce human error, and lessen physical strain on workers, leading to a safer and more productive workplace.

Robotic Palletizers & Depalletizers

Palletizers are used in warehouses to automatically stack items onto pallets. They receive items on a conveyor belt, orient them as needed, form layers on pallets according to a preset pattern, and secure the load for transport. De-palletizers, on the other hand, do the reverse process, removing items from pallets for further processing or distribution. They typically use suction cups, grippers, or other mechanisms to lift items off the pallets, place them onto a conveyor, and transport them to the next stage of production or packaging.

Together, these automation technologies create an integrated and comprehensive system that significantly boosts the efficiency and accuracy of warehouse operations. This ensures a seamless flow of goods from the moment they enter the warehouse until they are shipped out, optimizing every stage of the process.

Here is a view of the inbound stations at Lane Automotive, each showcasing 24 buffer put-to-light cells.

Case Study Highlight: Lane Automotive

At Lane Automotive, the implementation of Exotec’s Skypod System as the centerpiece of their end-to-end warehouse automation exemplifies the significant benefits of mobile ASRS. This integration, combined with a range of inbound and outbound solutions, has revolutionized their operations. Key features include multiple inbound stations, each with 24 buffer put-to-light cells, an empty carton delivery system directing formed shipping cartons to designated picking stations, multiple inline weight scales for enhanced order accuracy and validation, inline packing list insertion, automated packing systems, and inline label applicators.

These advancements have resulted in a more than 600% increase in throughput and a reduction in order processing time from 109 minutes to less than 15 minutes, highlighting the dramatic efficiency gains achievable with advanced automation technologies. Additionally, the system’s scalability enabled Lane Automotive to double its volume handling capacity with minimal additional investment, demonstrating the necessary adaptability for modern business growth.

For an in-depth look at how Lane Automotive transformed its fulfillment operations with Exotec’s solutions, read the full case study here

Three Key Benefits of Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation brings several key advantages to logistics operations:

  • Enhanced Efficiency and Productivity: Automation streamlines processes, reducing the time it takes to execute tasks like picking, packing, and shipping. This efficiency boost speeds up operations and increases the overall output without additional labor.
  • Improved Accuracy and Reduced Operational Costs:  Automated systems enhance accuracy and efficiency by eliminating guesswork for operators and systematically verifying their operations. This ensures precise inventory management and accurate order fulfillment on the first attempt. Such precision minimizes expensive errors and returns while also reducing labor costs through the automation of repetitive tasks.
  • Reduced Dependence on Manual Labor: As business needs evolve, warehouse automation systems provide scalability and adaptability without significantly increasing the need for additional personnel. Whether expanding storage capacity or integrating new technologies, these systems are designed to grow with your business, ensuring long-term sustainability and flexibility in operations.

These benefits combine to make warehouse automation a powerful tool for companies looking to optimize their warehousing and distribution strategies, ultimately improving service quality and customer satisfaction.

How to Automate Your Business or Warehouse

Implementing warehouse automation involves careful planning and strategic decisions. Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you automate your warehouse effectively:

  • Assess Your Needs: Evaluate your current operations to identify areas where automation can benefit most. Consider factors like volume, throughput requirements, and specific challenges in handling materials.
  • Research Technologies: Discover the latest in warehouse automation by attending industry trade shows. These events let you see AS/RS, conveyor systems, robotic systems, and integrated software in action. Gain insights from expert-led conferences and connect directly with solution providers. Visit our upcoming events page to learn more.
  • Select the Right Technologies: Prioritize flexibility when choosing warehouse automation technologies. Opt for solutions that seamlessly grow with your business and adapt to changing operational needs. This focus ensures that the technologies you implement today will continue to serve your evolving requirements, enhancing both scalability and compatibility with your existing infrastructure.
  • Change Management Plan: Focus on a change management plan that energizes stakeholders about adopting new automation technologies. Ensure open communication across departments and provide targeted training to facilitate smooth integration and foster support for the transition.
  • Provide Accurate Data: Ensure your solution provider receives precise and comprehensive data concerning your current operations, such as your business’ order volume throughout the year and product dimensions, to tailor automation solutions that best fit your specific operational needs and maximize efficiency.
  • Roll Out: Work closely with your solution provider to set appropriate milestones throughout the implementation process. This structured approach ensures that each phase of automation is carefully monitored and adjustments are made as needed, facilitating a smooth transition and successful integration.
  • Continuous Improvement: After implementation, continually assess the performance of your automated systems and work with your provider to make improvements to optimize efficiency and productivity.

By following these steps and carefully selecting the right technologies, you can effectively automate your warehouse and reap the benefits of increased efficiency, reduced costs, and improved accuracy.

Challenges Faced & Answered by Warehouse Automation

Adopting warehouse automation solutions comes with its set of challenges:

  • High Initial Investment: The upfront cost of implementing automated systems can be significant. However, the long-term savings in manual labor costs and increased efficiencies such as optimized space utilization, reduced inventory holding costs, and lower picking error rates resulting in fewer returns and increased customer loyalty often justify the investment.
  • Integration with Existing Systems: Integrating new automation technologies with warehouse management systems can be complex. Prioritize automation solutions that offer flexible software that has proven to be compatible with a wide range of warehouse management systems, ensuring a smoother transition.
  • Workforce Adaptation: Open communication across various departments, training programs, and the gradual integration of automated systems can help ease the transition, setting your automation projects up for success.  
  • Maintenance Requirements: Automated systems require regular maintenance to function optimally. Choosing reliable automation partners like Exotec, who ensure ongoing support and maintenance without hidden fees. This ensures peace of mind with the smooth operation of your automation, keeping your solutions from turning into problems. 
  • Data Security and Privacy: As automation often involves handling significant amounts of data, securing this information becomes crucial. Prioritize automation solutions featuring robust cybersecurity measures that will safeguard against potential data breaches.

By addressing these challenges with strategic planning and the right technology partners, businesses can effectively leverage warehouse automation to enhance operational efficiency and competitiveness.

Warehouse Automation Trends

As warehouse automation becomes increasingly essential in the logistics industry, several key trends are shaping its future:

  • Advanced Robotics: The shift towards robotics, exemplified by Exotec’s Skypod® System, represents a significant trend. Unlike traditional ASRS that rely on heavy machinery, these agile robots offer rapid installation, adaptability for an unpredictable future, and high reliability without multiple points of failure.
  • Scalable Solutions: Flexibility and adaptability in warehouse operations are crucial as market demands fluctuate. More and more businesses are prioritizing scalable systems that allow them to adjust their infrastructure efficiently, enhancing growth and operational agility without excessive downtime.
  • Digital Twin Technology: This technology is crucial in planning and optimizing warehouse operations by creating virtual replicas of physical systems. It allows for detailed scenario testing and operational adjustments before implementation, ensuring smoother integration and system efficiency.
  • Sustainable Practices: There is a growing emphasis on minimizing environmental impacts within warehouse operations. Systems that use energy-efficient technologies, like the lightweight, battery-powered robots in the Skypod System, are becoming more prevalent, aligning operational efficiency with sustainability goals.
  • Enhanced Connectivity with 5G: The integration of 5G technology is poised to revolutionize warehouse automation by enabling faster data processing and enhancing real-time decision-making capabilities.
  • Robust Security Measures: As technological advancements continue, ensuring the security of automated systems against physical and cyber threats has become paramount. Implementing comprehensive security measures is essential for protecting assets and maintaining continuous operations.

For a deeper exploration of these trends and how they can transform your warehousing operations, read the full article, “Top Warehouse Trends for 2024: Future of Automation.”

Automate Your Warehouse with Exotec

Exotec’s solutions, including the Skypod system, are specifically designed to meet the varied needs of modern warehouses. The Skypod System allows for rapid and precise access to goods, boasting a capability where any items in the system can be retrieved within two minutes. This efficiency is paramount for businesses aiming for high throughput, as the system also supports a 5x increase in operational speed compared to traditional manual operations. Additionally, the Skypod system offers remarkable flexibility in scaling both throughput and storage independently, meeting system expansion requirements without unnecessary capital expenditure. This ensures that businesses can adapt their warehouse operations fluidly as market demands or their business model evolves, all while ensuring minimal disruption to ongoing operations.

We recommend taking a Virtual Warehouse Tour of Exotec’s advanced automation solutions. This interactive experience provides valuable insights into optimizing your warehouse operations effectively.

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