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Business Logistics concept, Businessman manager using tablet check and control for workers with Modern Trade warehouse logistics. Industry 4.0 concept

By Ryan Thompson, Senior Specialist of Industry 4.0, and Brad Prizer, Industrial Engineer and Warehouse Specialist, CRB

Extended labor shortages have many manufacturers looking for ways to make the best use of employee time and skillset, and sometimes that means introducing partial or full warehouse automation. But how do you get there, and which material handling (MH) and storage solutions suit your operations? In this Q&A, experts from CRB, a leading global provider of engineering, architecture, construction, and consulting solutions, provide tips to help you evaluate and plan your warehouse automation strategy.

What are the benefits of warehouse automation?

Ryan Thompson: Best-in-class factories can increase throughput, reduce error, and run warehouses without any human interaction. An automated warehouse integrated with a Warehouse Management System (WMS) can quickly and accurately get raw materials where they need to be, when they need to be there. This can reduce manufacturing downtime caused by the inconsistent or untimely movement of materials from within the facility. Similarly, getting finished goods into storage or out the door can be done seamlessly and without a human touchpoint (eliminating the need for constant loudspeaker pages and radio calls!). It also allows for integration with quality systems to ensure finished goods are ready for release before they are allowed to be shipped to a customer–eliminating errors that can create logistical (or recall) issues. There are also multiple safety benefits, as a well-planned automated warehouse reduces the potential for operator injuries and collisions in picking/put away and transport operations. 

Is an automation solution right for everyone? When does it not make sense?

Brad Prizer: The process should be analyzed to determine the correct level of automation, if any at all. It is imperative to perform an operations analysis to understand the process metrics that drive the feasibility of automation adoption. Also, if the current process is not very well defined, with inventory and quality problems, those issues can be compounded with automation.  

Ryan Thompson: Depending on the throughput of the factory, sometimes the right level of automation might be none. As Brad mentioned, if the process is not well defined, adding complications of automation can produce more headaches.

Are there facility types or layouts that are inherently better for automation? What are some facility layout challenges when it comes to incorporating automation?

Brad Prizer: Automated movement is well-suited where travel distances are excessive. While more space is needed–whether it is static automation, such as conveyors or dynamic automation, such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or autonomous mobile robots (AMRs)—the space is made up with increased throughput.

Ryan Thompson: If floor space (or surface space) is a limiting factor, often a higher warehouse, complete with an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS), can be helpful. This allows for higher racking and tighter spaces between aisles to get more storage per square foot. 

When the AGV goes beyond the warehouse for additional material movements, it’s critical that routes, material flows, and frequencies are studied and understood. Inadequate planning can cause a single-file robot lane to be a bottleneck for the whole factory.

Are there products that are better suited to automation solutions?

Brad Prizer: Automating storage and material movement for products that require refrigerated or frozen storage provides many potential benefits in addition to productivity gains. Eliminating the need for operators to enter subzero temperatures decreases the potential for safety issues. Automated solutions also have the potential to shrink the footprint/volume of the storage area, which can provide substantial cost/energy savings, considering the room conditioning required for these spaces.

What are the biggest mistakes/oversights you see in an automation strategy?

Ryan Thompson: For me, it is islands of automation and not integrating the warehouse into the rest of the operations. An ASRS system is fine on its own, but it still requires a lot of human input to request things from the system.

What questions should a project team ask early in the planning phase?

Brad Prizer: It is critical to understand the current process to determine the feasibility of automated solutions. Is our current process/layout conducive to automation? Do we have enough throughput? Do we have the right systems/software in place? Are we tracking metrics (and the correct ones)? What are the business drivers for this change?

Ryan Thompson: The most important thing is to understand the big picture. When your business is operating normally, what is the throughput for raw materials and finished goods? What happens if your volumes increase by 25%? I think it is critical to look at an operational efficiency study to understand the complete flow of materials through your facility and their frequency. Further, planning requirements for integrations with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) will help understand the benefits you will expect to achieve which can be quantified and measured against the investment cost.

Brad is an industrial engineer at CRB and specializes in process improvement across many industries, from manufacturing and healthcare, to business processes. No matter the industry, his solutions are data-driven to optimize efficiency, reduce waste, and meet business objectives. With 10 years of experience, he is proficient both in process improvement and project management; as a certified PMP. In addition to process improvement, Brad also specializes in warehouse operations and layout design; right-sizing warehouse operations to meet business needs while optimizing material, personnel and traffic flows. He utilizes computer modeling technologies to help clients operate their facilities more efficiently with lower costs, greater throughputs and higher quality.

Ryan brings more than 17 years of experience successfully leading companies and projects through their digital transformation. He leverages a unique combination of technical expertise, strong leadership, and clear communication to drive meaningful, scalable Industry 4.0 strategies and roadmaps. ROI is front of mind as Ryan seeks continual process improvements through tools, technology, and innovation to achieve big-picture, sustainable solutions. He believes the purpose of Industry 4.0 is to achieve more with less.

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