Throughout the pandemic, logistics has become the center of attention well beyond the e-commerce world. Consumers running out of hygiene supplies; shortages of food on the shelves at their local grocery stores; difficulties reserving a reasonable time slot for online food delivery – these have brought heightened visibility into logistics for consumers, industry professionals, and venture capitalists, alike. This global realization that effective logistics is now more critical than ever in society has made it apparent that meeting customer demand and managing growth requires improved efficiency in the supply chain. Automation is no longer a choice, it’s a necessity.
As companies look for ways to keep up with increased demand, a smart approach is to add automation into an existing system. At this time of digital transformation, companies look to cutting edge technologies that they can embed into their existing operations to provide short-term improvements. Unfortunately, incremental upgrades in the system for processes that were not designed for automation often cause unforeseen problems, subsequently leading to blaming the new technologies for these significant issues. Traditional hardware components and methods, however, rarely mesh well with new technologies. The key to solving this problem is stepping back and looking at the overall system as a whole to really gain the most out of these new high-tech products.
However, this concept is not new – visualizing automation in warehouses has been going on for around 30 years. What is new is the rate of innovation and the level of automation now available. Today, automation can impact the heart of your core business with new technologies that can automate picking, pack-outs, and even front-door delivery. It requires team effort to ensure that you can meet customer demands without disrupting your supply chain.
A brilliant example of team effort and the steps it takes to meet customer demands is in the 2019 movie, “Ford v Ferrari.” This film depicts the American automaker Ford putting together a winning formula consisting of a powerful driving machine, a skilled driver and a team that was fully in tune with the need for all parts to work seamlessly together in order to get the most out of the Ford GT40. To be victorious required synchronizing different variables — from the race car designer to the ownership team and talented pit crew; the right wheels and engine; to the driver who knew how to handle the track properly. All these came together to make the Ford GT40 program a success – a true team effort.
So, how does this apply in a warehouse? Ask yourself, “Who is my team now?” Your team is beyond your four walls. When we think about going through a digital transformation, these are the three most critical parties involved and scenarios that typically take place:
1) You and the warehouse/logistics division that are investing in the new technology and putting resources into it. You know that automation is about being lean, and you are prepared to implement process improvements such as Kaizen to get the most out of automation.
2) The companies that are developing breakthrough products. You must work hand-in-hand with your innovation partner to ensure that your needs are being included in their roadmap.
3) The integrators (sometimes the technology companies themselves) who are in charge of meeting your needs with the available solutions. When a core step is affected, the limitations of the technology may not allow your expectations to be met, and integrators are crucial for bridging the gap between what the technology can provide and what you need achieved.
At this point, integrators play a critical role. Working with older systems while adapting newer technologies is not an easy task. The result is that projects take longer, and both the customer and the technology provider go through multiple iterations. Each party shares responsibility in the success of these projects.
Take for example one of the most successful case studies of digital transformation ever seen from our previous generation: Kiva Systems. Kiva was created by Mick Mountz (now board member at RightHand Robotics) after he experienced the burden of fulfilling customer expectations by relying on legacy technology for a growing industry while working at Webvan. What Mick and the Kiva team did was not just integrate autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) into an existing solution, he also analyzed the problem and developed a solution that completely changed how logistics and warehousing industries were thinking about automation. AMRs have been around since the 1950s, but until Kiva introduced their solution to the market, they had never been used the way they are today.
Since then, the pace of digital transformation has accelerated dramatically. Computing power and the evolution of vision systems, along with advancements in machine learning, opened up all-new possibilities that were not conceivable a decade or so ago. Right now, the challenge is not about developing components to solve these problems. Today’s innovators must build a solution for a complete overhaul of the legacy systems, so that the industry can get the most out of these breakthrough technologies.
Major players in the industry are looking at this problem by taking a step back – just like Kiva did 20 years ago. Large ASRS (automated storage and retrieval systems) companies such as AutoStore and ASRS integrators such as Element Logic are considering the capabilities that are needed to utilize these newer technologies at full capacity. Additionally, automated piece-picking, which is what RightHand does, is a growing market that ASRS companies are looking into for additional support within their systems. As the warehouse landscape improves for these breakthrough technologies, integration will be faster and continuous.
Successful automation is defined by how well exceptions are handled, and that requires a complete solution rather than small fixes. For example, an exception could be dropping an item during transfer. With a well-thought-out product in place, the automated piece-picking system would be able to detect this issue and either resolve it automatically or notify the site operations team to assist. These types of systems would consist of a flexible, nimble gripper connected to a robot arm, enhanced with vision capabilities and enterprise-level artificial intelligence software, integrated and designed to detect and address such issues effectively. New innovations and upgrades in these systems are now more widely available thanks to rapid technology developments. With the right system in place, exceptions can be minimized and easily resolved, leading to higher overall equipment efficiency – a key metric for automation systems.
At the macro level, companies that are undertaking digital transformation would benefit more by doing a complete overhaul with buy-in from every team member. For a successful transformation, vendors and integrators must align around continuous improvement processes, including KPIs and timelines. At the micro level, your choice of partner is as important as the solution they are providing.
Now more than ever, implementing automation in warehouses is critical for a business to sustain itself, keep up with increasing demand, and manage growth. For warehouse professionals who are contemplating how to automate their systems, remember to apply lean processes and make it a team sport – that is the recipe for success.