Within the past several years, you might have noticed a topical trend picked up by warehousing, manufacturing, distribution, and other industry publications – it’s the mounting fixation on the “warehouse of the future.” The warehouse of the future isn’t something that is definitive, but publications such as Supply Chain 247 assert that cutting-edge technologies will be the hallmark of them; these predictions include gadgets such as, “predictive analytics and machine learning, autonomous vehicles and drones, robotics, and 3D printing.”
Ostensibly, Supply Chain 247 didn’t need to take a major leap of faith when publishing these forecasts, as all listed technologies are already being integrated into warehouses worldwide. Thus, what makes the predictions so key, especially those in the order-picking arena (i.e. autonomous vehicles and robotics), is the fact that adopting them may be a matter of survival for e-commerce operations, and no longer a matter of showmanship.
But, before we dive into what makes automated warehouse picking necessary – and, sometimes, not-so-necessary –let’s take a look at the definition of the technology:
Automated warehouse picking is a process that is integrated in order to either: a) replace a human picker or b) aid a human picker. The best technologies on the market today incorporate some form of robotics, but that doesn’t mean that all automated systems consist of self-guided robots. Included in the automated warehouse picking solutions are lightweight pick-to-light systems and even conveyors. Most often these automated warehouse picking solutions are paired with complementary software, such as warehouse management systems (WMS) so that the operation can benefit from on-demand reporting, inventory counts, and more.
Now that you have a keener sense of what constitutes an automated warehouse picking system, it’s time to assess the pros and cons you can come to expect upon integrating one.
The pros of automated warehouse picking
As you’ve likely surmised, operations experience plenty of benefits after investing in and integrating automated warehouse picking systems–usually, immediately, in fact. Here are some of the powerful positive points of the technology:
- Increased productivity: Whether you select an AS/RS (automated retrieval storage system), a fully-autonomous picking vehicle, or even a light-weight collaborative system, your operation will absolutely experience increased productivity. That said, your surge in productivity will depend upon the system you select. For instance, collaborative robots speed up processes by 2-3x and AS/RS can even surpass those impressive stats.
- Keep your existing infrastructure: When automated picking systems first hit the market, they featured clunky elements that often required bolts, lots of available space, and sometimes major changes in infrastructure. These days, though, the standard automated warehouse picking options are lightweight and can even be programmed to exist and/or move within your warehouse’s established physical infrastructure, removing the need for costly overhauls and possible compliance issues down the road.
- Sync with software for on-demand reporting: Your warehouse management systems (WMS) and /or warehouse execution system (WES) can usually be tied to your chosen automated picking system. This powerful combination allows for valuable information, such as inventory counts, to be automatically generated and accessed anytime, anywhere. Better yet, when an automated picking system and its corresponding software work together, they can also make productivity-driven suggestions, such as picking technique alterations for unexpected peaks and more.
The cons of automated warehouse picking
As with all technological integrations, there are a few downsides that come with the offerings. Here are a few of the top cons involved in the automation of warehouse picking operations:
- High initial investment: Depending upon the picking system that you select, you could easily shell out upwards of a million dollars–and sometimes more – just on the initial investment alone. While this is a number that the largest players in fulfillment wouldn’t necessarily balk at, it is one that should not be taken lightly, especially if your operation is still in the process of defining its long-term goals, budget, and/or leadership.
- Systems could lack adaptability: While we’re not going to argue that automated warehouse picking solutions don’t surpass the physical efforts of humans working in the same roles, we will say that these systems have yet to reach a point in which adaptive “thinking” can take place. For operations, this means that the automation must be reprogrammed each and every time a change in processes is instituted.
- Your workforce could suffer: One of the growing concerns among warehouse associates is their seemingly inevitable replacement by autonomous elements. While such substitutions might create an instant surge in productivity, they can also cause substantial personnel problems, namely, mass exoduses of employees who feel that their jobs may be in danger, or simply decreases in morale. These might seem like issues that even the greenest of managers can handle, but if autonomous integrations are made without the workforce being readied first, problems can ensue.
When considered objectively, it might seem that automated warehouse picking is a no-brainer, and in many cases it is, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a change that should be adopted by all operations. Before you make the investment, carefully assess the pros and cons as they relate to your specific processes.