Fully automated warehouses can be a bit of a taboo subject for companies at times. After all, jobs performed by robots are jobs that can’t be filled by people. However, today’s very low unemployment rate means that more and more companies are having a hard time finding workers for these jobs so they are being forced to consider warehouse automation. This does sound like a dream scenario for supply chain executives: high productivity without the ancillary costs associated with a human workforce.
We’re talking about a step – or several steps – further than a simply goods to person automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) in a warehouse. It also includes self-guided forklifts, vision-guided robots, robotic palletizers and high speed conveyors. The picture painted by highly innovated companies is that of a completely “dark” warehouse. One manned entirely by robots. Now, in most automated warehouses the main task that is automated is the carrying of shelves of product to a human worker who will then pick items from the shelves to pack for shipment. The next step is to automate the picking process entirely.
Robotic workforces have many advantages over their human counterparts: They don’t require breaks or vacations, the same machine can run all three shifts of the day, they don’t get tired or complain. They can withstand temperature extremes better than humans can (thus saving on heating/cooling costs), they don’t need health insurance, etc.
However the downside is a tremendous upfront capital expenditure. While humans are costly over the long haul, that money is paid out in small increments. To fully automate a warehouse requires a great amount of upfront cost that many companies can have a hard time justifying.
Regardless of that high upfront capital expenditure, a dark warehouse is becoming a goal for many. These types of facilities are most possible in the warehouse where people are moving large quantities of the same types of objects. Another type of facility that has been a candidate for full or near-full automation is cold storage or freezer warehouses such as those used in the food and beverage space or pharmaceutical industry. Automation reduces the exposure of human workers to adverse conditions as well as helps maintain climate control.
Ultimately, the path to a dark warehouse is first reliant on the implementation of these three things
- Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems
- High-speed sorting equipment
- Warehouse robotics
ASRS are “lights out” by design since there is quietly literally no room for a human operator within them. These work best in distribution centers that handle high volumes of inventory moving in and out of storage. The best of breed ASRS solutions are able to sort, sequence and bugger goods for tasks such as picking, order fulfillment and temporary or long-term storage. High speed sorting equipment can operate independently of human control and get the goods where they need to be. Recent innovations have allowed the robotic workforce to become mobile. Using wireless instructions from a warehouse management system (WMS) or warehouse execution system (WES) these robots can transport pallets and cases of goods throughout the warehouse.
While we are still some ways out from dark warehouses becoming the norm, it is best to start considering the possibility as soon as possible. With rapid technological advancement, it likely won’t be long before lights out facilities become more and more prevalent. Consider the possibilities now so when the time comes, you won’t be afraid of the dark!
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