Warehouse automation is a rising trend in the supply chain industry. Steve Banker, a Forbes contributor, states that automation is the feasible future of warehousing.
McKinsey & Company reports that the fast-paced development and adoption of new technologies make many companies enhance warehouse and inventory management processes significantly.
Let's take a closer look at the statistics on warehouse automation development and the warehouse automation market growth.
WHAT IS WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION SYSTEM
Automation is the process of integrating new technologies into a warehouse. The primary aim of warehouse automation is to replace the labor force with machines.
Technologies have better performance, don't require compensation, and can work 24/7. Machines can perfectly perform monotonous tasks without any help to minimize the chance of errors or accidents.
- Digital — Software products that facilitate inventory management and offer the opportunity to monitor processes in live time. Warehouse management systems are the most widespread type of technology used for the digital transformation of storage facilities.
- Physical — Mechanical devices that reduce the need for workers to pick and move assets manually. The top physical warehouse automation solutions are robotic arms, conveyor belts, and automated guided vehicles.
In a nutshell, a warehouse automation system is a set of technologies that develop the industry 4.0 storage facility. In smart warehouses, most monotonous and repetitive tasks are performed by robots. Meanwhile, managers have comprehensive control over all the processes.
Three levels of warehouse automation are defined. The levels of automation in a warehouse are the following:
- Low or no automation — Manual or low automation level. A business uses the labor force to store and move items in a warehouse. Inventory management is performed manually using spreadsheets.
- Systems and mechanized automation — It is the moderate automation level. A storage facility widely uses WMSs to track assets automatically and make automated decisions. Also, some processes are mechanized to automate tedious work or help move heavy items.
- Sophisticated automation — The advanced automation level. A business adopts the latest warehouse automation trends and solutions, striving to build a 100% autonomous storage facility.
There is no one-size-fits-all warehouse automation technology. A large assortment of technologies offers the opportunity to build various storage facility automation systems.
Let's dive deeper and explore warehouse automation trends and widespread solutions.
POPULAR WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION SOLUTIONS
The development of warehouse automation systems has been growing for many years.
Let's check the most popular warehouse automation optimization technologies that were tried and tested by many companies.
Warehouse Management System
A warehouse management system (WMS) is a software solution that helps track all warehouse automation processes.
In a nutshell, it is an advanced enterprise resource planning tool. A WMS holds information about all assets that enter and leave a storage facility.
WMSs have the following benefits:
- Meticulous inventory management
- Reduced operational costs
- Better inventory visibility and live-time tracking
- Optimized items storage
- Improved customer experience
- Transparent billing and invoicing
- Enhanced security
- Efficient labor management
The key features of a warehouse management system are:
- Import and export of features
- Inventory management
- Order details
- Real-time tracing of assets
- Information about picking and packing
- Billing and invoicing
- Labor management
Warehouse management systems are distinguished into two types that are:
- Cloud-based — Software is installed on a server that a third-party company maintains. All the data is transferred via the Internet. Therefore, a reliable network connection is required to reduce the risk of WMS downtime.
- On-premises — Warehouse management software is installed on a local server. Hardware should be managed and maintained by a business. It offers the opportunity to create a local network that does not rely on the Internet connection.
Also, warehouse management systems can be:
- Pre-built — A solution that a third-party company creates. Ready-made WMSs can be easily installed and configured. However, they may not completely meet the requirements of a business. They have a predetermined set of features. Only a software provider can develop and release new features. Also, most vendors charge monthly fees based on the number of features, managers, and items.
- Custom-made — A type of warehouse management solution that is created from scratch. They have the form of well-tailored solutions that help achieve all business goals. Custom software can be easily updated and scaled up. Developers can add new features upon demand to keep up with recent warehouse automation trends.
Pick-to-Light and Put-to-Light
It is one of the most popular warehouse automation trends. The technology can help increase the performance of workers significantly.
This technology's integration can help increase personnel's performance by 40%, on average.
Meanwhile, it is easier and cheaper to implement compared to other warehouse management automation solutions. The primary aim of this technology is efficient inventory control and warehouse automation. It helps eliminate the need to find items on shelves manually.
The system implies small light bulbs installed on racks. The bulbs identify items needed to pick.
Workers need to scan a barcode when new assets arrive at a warehouse. Then, the system will automatically highlight where a new item should be placed.
The benefits of integrating the pick-to-light and put-to-light systems are:
- Increased productivity
- Enhanced accuracy
- Reduced risk of item misplacement
- Fast and simple implementation
- Quick staff training
Automated Assets Tracking
Knowing all the details about the location of every item in a warehouse is vital for effective management.
With the help of automated item tracking, businesses can find assets quickly and trace their location in live time, which is one of the rising warehouse automation trends.
The benefits of automated tracking of assets and tools in a warehouse are the following:
- Real-time tracking
- High location detection accuracy
- No involvement of workers
- 24/7 assets tracking
Automatic inventory management is ensured by using scanners that track signs attached to them. Scanners and sensors automatically detect items and update information about their location in a warehouse management system.
For instance, scanners can be installed on a conveyor belt to track the location of items in live time. Also, scanners can be installed on forklifts, palettes, racks, and lorries for efficient warehouse automation.
The most popular solutions used to track items automatically are:
- Barcodes — One of the most widespread solutions to track items. It requires installing barcode scanners, ensuring a short distance to codes, and providing good lighting conditions. Unfortunately, the scanning speed is low.
- RFID tags — An innovative alternative to barcodes. RFID tags use radio waves to send and receive data. They can hold a certain amount of data and update it. RFID tags are durable, can be attached to almost any material, and can be scanned in bulk. These features make them a preferred choice for automated scanning by many companies.
- Beacons — Small devices that have in-built batteries and sensors. Beacons can hold information about items they are attached to. This type of device emits the Bluetooth signal constantly. When paired to another device connected to the Internet, data gets transferred to the central server or the nearest edge processing unit. Also, Bluetooth technology offers the opportunity to measure items' locations indoors precisely.
- Graphic signs — Businesses can use AI-driven cameras to track items, vehicles, and tools. Signs placed on items help smart cameras detect items accurately.
A business can also use the technologies along with a fleet management system to track vehicles in storage facilities and sites.
Automated Sortation Systems
It is one of the most widely used warehouse automation solutions. It helps decrease the use of the labor force significantly.
Integrating automated asset tracking into a sortation system for proper item identification is vital.
Usually, an automated sortation system consists of three major components:
- Conveyor belts — Assets are moved on a conveyor belt in a warehouse.
- Items identification system — Items get detected using barcodes, RFID tags, beacons, or other technologies.
- Separators — A sliding shoe sorter or a plastic separator moved by an actuator to change the direction of an item.
There are different kinds of separating systems. The modular design offers the opportunity to build custom systems for every warehouse.
Automated sortation systems can facilitate asset storing and automate item packing.
The essential advantages of using an automated sortation system in a storage facility are:
- Reduced labor costs
- Automated sorting and packing
- Enhanced productivity of a warehouse
- Improved accuracy
- Faster order processing
- Efficient space usage, including vertical space
- Reduced risk of error
Automated Guided Vehicles
Warehouses have already used the technology for many years. In most cases, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are used by enterprise-grade warehouses.
AGVs are small robots that automatically move packages or racks in storage facilities. They deliver items to workers in the packing zone and return them to the storage zone. Consequently, they eliminate the need for workers to pick items manually.
The top features of AGVs:
- Automated items delivery
- Error-free packages placement
- Automated route planning
- Automated charging
- Great scalability
Automated guided vehicles are good at performing monotonous tasks 24/7. With the help of network connectivity and many different technologies used for precise positioning, they don't crush each other.
Big Data Analytics
Technologies that help create warehouse automation solutions generate large amounts of data. It can be a goldmine of valuable insights.
A business needs to have enough computing power provided by a cloud or on-premises servers to analyze all the information. Large-scale storage facilities also need to have edge nodes installed to reduce the data processed by the central server.
A business can get valuable insights by analyzing the raw data received from smart devices. They help predict demand for products. It can help optimize warehouse usage and minimize the risk of running out of stock.
Also, big data analytics can help identify patterns and offer suggestions on improving storage facility management processes.
GROWING WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION TRENDS
The warehouse automation industry is rising rapidly, and many new solutions have appeared.
Let's learn more about rising warehouse automation trends.
Robotic arms have been using in the manufacturing industry for a while. They help move packages automatically. Also, they help pick and pack heavy items.
This warehouse automation technology eliminates the need to use the labor force for picking assets. There are a lot of storage facility configurations that use robotic warehouse automation systems for different purposes.
However, in most cases, they are used for picking items from shelves and putting them on a conveyor belt and vice versa. Besides, robotic arms can be installed on automated guided vehicles.
The top benefits of this technology are:
- 24/7 work
- Improved efficiency
- Increased safety
- Enhanced precision
It is worth noting that robotics arms are usually designed to pick only one asset type. Consequently, they can hardly pick items of various sizes and shapes. Businesses put all assets into unified boxes that robotic arms can move to overcome this challenge.
Automated Storage and Picking Systems
This type of warehouse automation system is completely automated. They use many different technologies and work autonomously.
Integrating this technology aims to create a dark storage facility, a popular warehouse automation trend. Dark warehouses are 100% automated. Hence, no lighting is required.
Automated storage and picking system use a combination of different technologies like:
- Robotic arms
- Conveyor belts
- Automated guided vehicles
- Automated assets tracking
This warehouse automation system can pick the required items from shelves in the storage area and deliver them to people in a packing zone. Also, it can take arrived assets and put them on shelves.
A warehouse management system controls all the processes.
The usage of drones is one of the rising warehouse automation trends. These small devices can make large distances and explore high shelves fast.
They can float automatically or be guided by a worker. Since drones can transmit video in real-time, an operator is not required to follow a drone.
The operations that drones can perform are:
- Storage facility inspection
- Barcode scanning
- Stock finding
- Packages' moving
It is worth noting that inventory drones differ from commercial aerial shooting models. They have collision-avoidance sensors and blade protection to work on the premises effectively.
Inventory drones have no GPS connectivity and are not required to comply with local aviation regulation rules.
The Internet of things (IoT) is a concept that describes the use of intelligent devices connected to one system. It is one of the most popular warehouse automation trends that define many different devices, including the ones highlighted in the post.
The most widespread IoT devices used for warehousing are:
- RFID tags
- Smart sensors
- Smart HVAC systems
- GPS trackers
IoT devices can gather data and send it to processing units using a network connection. Some devices can process information and send condensed data.
The primary aim of industrial IoT is to automate processes and enhance warehouse management.
For instance, a smart sensor can detect lighting conditions in a warehouse and send commands to intelligent bulbs to adjust the lighting. Also, smart sensors can help HVAC systems automatically maintain the required storage facility conditions.
The key benefits of applying the Internet of things in a warehouse are:
- Reduced operating costs
- Real-time tracking
- Improved inventory management
- Increased performance
- Enhanced forecasts accuracy
- Automated maintenance
- Reduced risks
- Detailed analytics
It's essential to keep a storage facility clean. Usually, the labor force is used to operate sweeping machines in a warehouse.
Unfortunately, the labor force expenses evolve, making businesses consider robotics technologies to keep their premises clean and tidy.
Automatic cleaning is achieved by using robotic cleaning machines. This machine navigates using computer vision, LiFi technology, or floor stickers. They have the form of standard sweeping machines but have no operators.
This solution has a lot of warehouse automation benefits that are:
- 24/7 storage facility sweeping
- Automatic navigation and charging
- No dependency on workforce availability
- More meticulous cleaning thanks to precise navigation
- Hasse-free scaling
Automatic Truck Loading
One of the primary goals of warehouse logistics automation is to use trucks as efficiently as possible. Automatic truck loading is one of the rising warehouse automation trends that help minimize the idling time of lorries with the help of robots that can move heavy cargo.
The system comprises a large platform with rollers. Workers or robotic arms place palettes with assets on the platform in a storage facility.
When a new truck arrives, the platform automatically moves all the palettes into a truck. No labor force is required at this stage. Consequently, a lorry gets loaded fast and hassle-free.
The system can unload cargo efficiently as well.
The use of the automatic truck loading system helps achieve the following:
- Reduce truck idling time
- Load and unload truck fast
- Increase the performance of a warehouse
- Improve safety
- Reduce demand in the labor force
Integrating the automatic truck loading system with logistics software is recommended. Consequently, it can calculate the loading time and build accurate schedules automatically.
Wearables are small devices that can be used by personnel. They help facilitate operations and enhance productivity.
They can guide workers and help them manage inventory faster. Wearable technologies need to have an internal source of power. In most cases, they use batteries that need to be replaced or charged. Also, they need to be connected to a network to share and receive data in live time.
The core advantages of using wearables in a warehouse are:
- Enhanced productivity of workers
- More focus on primary tasks
- Improved accuracy
- Better labor management
- Increased safety
The top wearable devices that help streamline warehouse automation are:
- Wearable computers — Small tablets attached to an arm of a worker. The device offers quick access to a warehouse management system.
- AR-glasses — Glasses that use Augmented Reality technology can display the required information about items on lenses. Consequently, workers don't need to take external devices to learn more about a package. Also, they can display the direction and distance to the required items to pick.
- Voice headsets — Headphones that enhance voice picking. The device can send voice commands to a server and play answers simultaneously for hand-free item detection.
- Wearable barcode scanners — The device is usually connected to finger-trigger gloves. Workers can point a scanner attached to a hand on a barcode and engage a scanner by touching one finger with another.
- Beacons — It is a device that collects data using built-in sensors. It can track workers' activity, precisely track their location, and detect idling time. It uses Bluetooth to pair with another device connected to a network for sending data to a WMS.
It is a great solution that has a lot of benefits. It helps reduce downtime and make mechanisms last longer.
In most cases, businesses fix tools and warehousing equipment only when it stops working. However, with predictive maintenance, managers can keep all the mechanisms up and running without unforeseen interruptions.
Predictive maintenance positively affects innovative warehousing. It can help achieve the following:
- Minimized downtime
- Enhanced safety
- Increased lifespan of equipment
- Well-planned schedule of technicians
- Decreased maintenance and repair costs
The two fundamental types of predictive maintenance are:
- Planned — Maintenance of mechanical equipment is scheduled, and managers get notified about the need to replace parts of mechanisms with the help of warehouse management software. The time of maintenance sessions is calculated automatically based on the usage of tools.
- Preventive — Smart sensors analyze the condition of mechanisms and create reports on the need to maintain tools. Sensors can analyze acoustic information, track vibrations, and even check the visual conditions of instruments and tools. In case any abnormal values get detected, a WMS notifies managers simultaneously.
It is one of the warehouse automation solutions that help workers increase productivity. It erases the need to use an external device that may distract from performing job responsibilities.
Workers receive commands issued by a WMS in the form of voice instructions. They guide labor on what items should be picked, where they are located, and where they need to be delivered. The voice-picking technology implies a headset connected to a warehouse management system.
Some advanced voice picking systems offer the opportunity to clarify instructions and have conversations with digital voice assistants.
The benefits of adopting the voice picking technology are:
- Hand-free interactions with a WMS
- Improved performance and accuracy
- Lowered risk of human error
- Enhanced productivity
Warehouse automation sustainability is a new trend in the industry. Many businesses strive to reduce the negative impact on the environment by adopting new warehouse automation systems.
The top most popular techniques and solutions that promote sustainable warehousing are:
- Solar panels and wind turbines
- Adoption of power-efficient technologies
- Meticulous climate control on premises
- Efficient storage space usage
- Materials reusing and recycling
The use of renewable energy generators like solar panels and wind turbines helps reduce utility bills and enhance energy independence.
Moreover, excessive energy generated can be emitted to the grid. In such a case, businesses can earn money by generating electricity and selling it.
REASONS TO ADOPT WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION
Let's check the reasons to adopt new technologies, backed with real warehouse automation statistics.
Industry 4.0 Development
96% of industry leaders are confident that adopting the latest technologies is the only way to grow. Moreover, it's required to keep up with the recent warehouse automation trends to overcome counterparts.
Improved Warehouse Performance
Automated storing, picking, and sorting solutions are 4.2 times more efficient than manual warehousing.
Warehouse automation solutions can pick and deliver assets faster. Also, they are more accurate and can work autonomously without any supervision.
Increased Labor Productivity
Roughly 50% of the time spent by workers is allocated to traveling in a warehouse.
The use of warehouse automation solutions helps move assets automatically. Items can be retrieved from the storage zone and automatically moved to the picking and packing zone.
Effective Inventory Management
RFID, voice picking, and pick-to-light technologies help increase inventory management accuracy by 67%.
Reduced Labor Costs
The cost of labor takes over 65% of the operating budgets of warehouses.
Moreover, the cost of the labor force is expected to increase shortly because of workers' shortages and the continuous rise of minimum wages.
Manual inventory management is accurate in 63% of cases only.
The use of modern technology control helps reduce the chance of human error. Complete warehouse automation helps achieve 99.9% accuracy.
Efficient Space Usage
43% of businesses report the problem of insufficient storage space usage.
The warehouse automation benefits help increase the efficiency of using space in a storage facility. Practical usage of vertical space is one of the primary warehouse automation trends.
Decreased Demand for Qualified Staff
39% of businesses in the warehousing industry struggle to find qualified staff.
By integrating robotic technologies, the need for qualified staff reduces. It helps save money on scouting, hiring, and new personnel training.
REAL-WORLD WAREHOUSE AUTOMATION EXAMPLES
Most industry leaders keep up with warehouse automation trends and integrate the latest technologies.
Let's explore the read-world warehouse automation examples below.
Amazon is the most prominent innovator in supply chain automation. The company keeps adopting new technologies to automate storage facility operations.
The primary warehouse automation technologies adopted by Amazon to improve its supply chain are:
Automated guided vehicles
Amazon has developed an advanced AGV named Proteus. It is a powerful device that helps automate or facilitate warehouse operations.
Also, it has unique features that make it stand out from other AGVs. With extensive industry expertise, Amazon managed to develop an automated guided vehicle fleet that helps overcome the significant challenges companies face when adopting the latest warehouse automation trends.
The key features of the Proteus model are the abilities to:
- Move around people in a warehouse
- Change routes to avoid collisions in live time
- Move heavy objects
- Tow wheeled items
Using automated guided vehicles has helped the company increase performance, reduce operating costs, and lower the number of injuries.
Amazon has already integrated more than half a million Proteus AGVs into its warehouses.
Automated sorting and picking
Amazon has launched an AI-driven package picking and storing technology. The Cardinal system helps automate tedious manual item identification and sorting tasks. It is one of the successful warehouse automation examples.
It implies the following technologies:
- Conveyor belts and separators
- AI-driven robotics arm
- Containers moved by AGVs
The intelligent robotic arm is one of the most crucial components of this automated sorting and picking system.
The Cardinal system can:
- Pick packages of different shapes and sizes
- Lift heavy boxes (up to 50 pounds)
- Read labels and scan barcodes
- Pick certain packages from a stack
- Place packages into required containers
Scanless packages identification
The automated scanning feature developed by Amazon helps workers increase their performance.
The system implies an advanced camera and AI-driven software. It can identify objects automatically when they appear in the vision zone of a camera.
It erases the need to pick scanners, find barcodes, and scan them manually. Workers simply need to move packages in a certain zone.
The inventory management process is performed in the background.
Containerized storage system
It is a system that helps develop an efficient automated storage facility with the help of unification.
The system implies plastic containers that are placed on racks moved by AGVs. Since all the containers are similar, robotic arms can easily pick and move them.
It helps overcome the challenge caused by the inability of robotic arms to pick small items of different shapes.
Ocado is an online-only grocery store that operates in the United Kingdom. It processes an enormous amount of orders that need to be packed and delivered to customers.
In order to keep up with the rising number of orders and scale up their business efficiently, the company has developed one of the most innovative technologies that set modern warehouse automation trends.
The warehouse's distinctive peculiarity is that it wasn't designed for people and has an advanced warehouse automation control system.
Nowadays, most companies tend to integrate robots into environments designed for humans. However, the company has designed an utterly robot-centric warehouse.
No human assistance is required to pick up products and collect orders. There is only a team of mechanics and supervisors who maintain the facility. They help ensure a 100% uptime of the system and accurate order collecting.
The company has built an automated warehousing system that uses AGVs, conveyor belts, and robotic arms to collect orders automatically.
The system comprises two major components.
Storage and retrieval system
The system has the form of a grid made of rails. Storage containers are located under the grid.
AGVs move in different directions and find the required cells automatically. They can pick up or put storage boxes and move them to other zones.
The system implies roughly 200 AGVs that are united into one system. It helps them avoid collisions and work effectively together, even though the distance between robots in the grid is only 5 millimeters.
Order collection system
The system is designed to collect custom orders by picking the required items and putting them into bags that will be delivered to customers.
The order collection system implies a robotic hand, a set of cameras, and a conveyor belt. The robotic arm has a unique mechanism that foresees the opportunity to grab items of any size, shape, and material. Three-dimension cameras that use AI help the arm identify objects and their position.
When orders are collected, they get moved to the delivery department.
The warehouse management system tracks all the groceries automatically. Managers get notified simultaneously when some groceries are about to run out of stock or expire.
The fast-paced development of modern technologies drives the warehousing industry to grow. There are a lot of warehouse automation trends that industry leaders actively adopt. The top warehouse automation solutions are:
- Warehouse management systems
- Automated guided vehicles
- Automated sortation systems
- Automated assets tracking
- Pick-to-light and put-to-light technology
- Big data analytics
Nevertheless, the variety of warehouse automation technologies isn't limited to these solutions. Many warehouse logistics automation technologies help automate manual processes. They offer the opportunity to build well-tailored warehouse automation solutions for businesses of any scale.
The three levels of storage facility automation are:
- Low or no automation
- Systems and mechanized automation
- Sophisticated automation
Yes. Complete warehouse automation is the main goal for many industry leaders. 100% autonomous storage facilities are expected to appear by 2030. They will be called "dark warehouses" because robots don’t need good lighting conditions to perform their duties.
The price of warehouse automation depends on many factors. The scale of business and technologies to use are the main ones. The approximate cost of automating a storage facility ranges from $500,000 to $25 million.
Automation in warehousing aims to reduce the demand in the labor force by making different processes performed by machines and computers.
The two main advantages of automation in a storage facility are:
- Improved warehouse performance
- Reduced labor costs
Nevertheless, there are many other advantages of adopting warehouse automation trends. They are the following:
- Industry 4.0 development
- Increased labor productivity
- Effective inventory management
- Increased accuracy
- Efficient space usage
- Decreased demand for qualified staff
An automated warehouse system combines software and mechanic tools that can move items in a storage facility and perform inventory management autonomously.
There are many versatile ways to automate processes in a storage facility. The main types of warehouse automation are:
- Warehouse management systems
- Pick-to-light and put-to-light
- Automated assets tracking
- Automated sortation systems
- Automated guided vehicles
- Robotic arms
- Automated storage and picking systems
- Industrial IoT
- Automatic truck loading
- Predictive maintenance