By Han-Li Tremblay, Associate Lead Practice at Avalon CSC
A few years ago, automation reluctant would have said that it will steal jobs and will make unemployment rate increase. However, today we are facing labor shortage which is one of the most common challenges in distribution and manufacturing industries. Automated services such as traveling, picking and replenishment became a necessity to survive in a world where customers are expecting to have their order delivered in less than 24 hours.
The question to be answered is not if having an automated system is a need but rather which one will fit my operations best. Between AMRs, AGVs, ASRS and others, how can I be sure to have the right system who is not excessive but flexible enough to sustain my 10-year projection growth?
The first question to answer is: What are my goals and objectives in automation selection? Is it to get a 2-year ROI, to triple my productivity, to acquire a new business and keep the same level of service, to gain space in my warehouse or all the above?
Every automation will make you save square footage by the simple fact of reducing aisle width. However, the height of the building and capacity of the automation to use cubic space instead of square space will make a considerable difference. The choice of automation if you have a structural mezzanine, or an 18 clear-foot ceiling, will not be the same as if you have a 40-foot building. AMRs or horizontal carousel might be good options versus ASRS, or Vertical Lift Module could be.
Automation picking productivity is highly flexible from a system that can pick 500 lines per hour versus a system that allows you to pick 100 to 150 lines per hour. Higher productivity comes usually with higher cost, but highest productivity is not always best. Business must find the right balance between the productivity needed and the expectation from the system. Even if a system can generate 500 presentations an hour, if you do not have the equipment, the staff or even the orders available, it causes productivity loss.
Return on Investment
Importance in the return on investment is not to only consider the cost of the machine itself, it as to be taken as a whole project investment including the maintenance fees, the recurring cost for the software licenses, the warranty, installation, etc. Also make sure to consider ROI based on your current throughput, how far are you from automation, if you are running your operations highly manual and paper-based picking, the ROI might be easier to get faster.
Who does not want to be flexible and allow the system to scale depending on their operations? What needs to be analyzed is how flexible it needs to be. Flexibility can be gained by adding or removing a couple of totes, robots an additional picking port or it can be by doubling or tripling the automation size.
In conclusion, there is no one size fits all automation systems. The offer on the market is large and the choice of the right solution and the right distributor can be tricky. If you do not have the knowledge and the expertise internally, surround yourself with the people who have it, and the cost will pay for itself.