Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation is the process of automating the movement of inventory into, within, and out of warehouses to customers with minimal human assistance. As part of an automation project, a business can eliminate labor-intensive duties that involve repetitive physical work and manual data entry and analysis.

Benefits of Warehouse Automation

  • Increased warehouse throughput​

  • Better resource utilization​

  • Reduced labor and operational costs​

  • Improved customer service​

  • Reduced handling and storage costs​

  • Reduced human error​

  • Minimized manual labor​

  • Increased productivity and efficiency​

  • Improved employee satisfaction​

  • Enhanced data accuracy and analysis​

  • Reduced stockout events​

  • Optimized warehouse space​

  • Greater inventory control​

  • Improved workplace safety​

  • Fewer shipping errors​

  • Reduced inventory loss​

  • Enhanced material handling coordination​

  • Improved order fulfillment accuracy​

Using automation to improve warehouse operations brings a wide range of advantages, from running more efficiently to minimizing human error. Here’s a list of the most commonly cited benefits:

Categories of Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation varies from relatively simple to quite complex. Basic automation uses planning, machinery and vehicles to reduce repetitive tasks. Advanced systems take advantage of artificial intelligence and robotics.

  1. Basic Warehouse Automation: This type of automation refers to simple technology that assists people with tasks that would otherwise require more manual labor. For example, a conveyor or carousel moves inventory from point A to point B.

    2.Warehouse System Automation: This type of system uses software, machine learning, robotics and data analytics to automate tasks and procedures. For example, a warehouse management system reviews all the orders that need to be filled in a day and has users pick like items to fulfill all those orders at once so they don’t traverse the warehouse back and forth multiple times.

    3. Mechanized Warehouse Automation: This kind of warehouse automation uses robotic equipment and systems to assist humans with warehouse tasks and procedures. Autonomous mobile shelf loader robots that lift racks of products and deliver them to human pickers to retrieve and sort is one example.

    4. Advanced Warehouse Automation: Advanced warehouse automation combines mechanized warehouse robotics and automation systems that can replace labor-intensive human workflows. For example, a robotic forklift fleet that uses advanced AI, cameras and sensors to navigate a warehouse and communicate each forklift’s location to an online tracking portal.

Types of Warehouse Automation Technology

There are many types of warehouse automation because there is a wide range of warehouse technology and systems available. Warehouse automation aims to minimize manual tasks and speed up processes, from receiving to shipping.

  1. Goods-to-Person (GTP): Goods-to-person fulfillment is one of the most popular methods for increasing efficiency and reducing congestion. This category includes conveyors, carousels and vertical lift systems. When properly applied, GTP systems can double or triple the speed of warehouse picking.​

  1. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS): AS/RS are a form of GTP fulfillment technology that includes automated systems and equipment like material-carrying vehicles, tote shuttles and mini-loaders to store and retrieve materials or products. High-volume warehouse applications with space constraints tend to utilize AS/RS systems.​

  1. Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs): This class of mechanized automation has minimal onboard computing power. These vehicles use magnetic strips, wires or sensors to navigate a fixed path through the warehouse. AGVs are limited to large, simple warehouse environments designed with this navigation layout. Complex warehouses with lots of human traffic and space constraints are not good candidates for AGVs.​

  1. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs): More flexible than AGVs, AMRs use GPS systems to create effective routes through a specific warehouse. They use advanced laser guidance systems to detect obstacles, so AMRs can safely navigate dynamic environments with lots of human traffic. They are easy to program with routes and easy to implement quickly.​

  2. Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light Systems: These systems use mobile barcode scanning devices synced to digital light displays to direct warehouse pickers where to place or pick up selected items. They can dramatically reduce walking and searching time and human error in high-volume situations.​

  1. Voice Picking and Tasking: The use of voice-directed warehouse procedures, also known as pick-by-voice, uses speech recognition software and mobile headsets. The system creates optimized pick paths to direct warehouse workers where to pick or put away a product. This method eliminates the need for handheld devices like RF scanners, so pickers can concentrate on their task with improved safety and efficiency.​

  1. Automated Sortation Systems: Sortation is the process of identifying items on a conveyor system and diverting them to a warehouse location using RFID, barcode scanners and sensors. Companies use automated sortation systems in order fulfillment for receiving, picking, packing and shipping.​

5 Steps to Automate Your Warehouse

Use this sample five-step plan to get started with warehouse automation.

  1. Create an implementation committee.​
    Form a committee of internal stakeholders who have expertise on current warehouse performance, capabilities and challenges, and understand existing technology gaps. Consider adding third-party experts who know about supply chain automation and have experience relative to your industry and warehouse operations.​

  1. Collect critical data.​
    Successful warehouse automation relies on data about your existing supply chain and business-critical warehouse operations. Before implementing new automation technology, evaluate your current data collection process and infrastructure. You’ll want to assign ownership of data migration to skilled IT stakeholders.​

  1. Evaluate your inventory controls.​
    Inventory control is at the core of warehouse operations. Before implementing a warehouse automation solution, determine or refine your standard operating procedures (SOPs) for inventory control. Include SOPs for purchasing, shipping, receiving, customer satisfaction and inventory loss. Define the key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure the success of automated inventory control processes and procedures. ​

  1. Implement a warehouse management system (WMS).​
    WMS platforms feature software modules that help control and track inventory, manage warehouse operations, reduce labor costs associated with manual tasks, and improve customer service. A modern WMS supports mobile devices and should be able to work with your existing enterprise software.

  2. Determine what kind of warehouse automation you want.​
    Is your goal to use automation to streamline manual data entry and reduce labor costs associated with back-office warehouse operations and accounting? Or, are you expanding your warehouse footprint or adding locations and think it’s time to use advanced physical process automation like robots and GTP systems? Determining the type of warehouse automation that aligns with goals and customer demand is essential.​