Recently we discussed the use of Autonomous Mobile Robots and how in the long-term they would prove to be the future technology used across a number of warehouses and distribution centres. At the same time we are aware that the uncertainty of Brexit means many businesses are hesitant to invest in more expensive technology. It may also be the case that for some companies, regardless of the current economic climate, a solid business case cannot be made for introducing the technology into their supply chain.
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) have been around in one form or another for almost 70 years and there is a case to be made for and against their continued use. Read on below to find out more about some of the systems benefits and drawbacks.
Reduction of labour costs
Increasing productivity and efficiency is the golden ticket that every business wants to win. AGVs tick these boxes due to their reliability and long term cost effectiveness. They do not tire or need to take breaks during the day. They provide higher task accuracy and can be set to work on repetitive tasks that could lead to injury, or put humans at risk over a period of time.
The use of an AGV can start with as few as one but as demands grow, so too can the fleet. Their operation expands (or decreases) as and when you need it to, and the time taken to implement these changes will enhance the speed of your operational flow. If needed, AGVs can also be adapted to include robotic attachments as a cost effective gateway into more advanced technology.
Predictability and Safety
Their easy control handling means AGVs remain a reliable and safe way to transport goods through distribution and warehouse centres. They are designed and installed to work away from the workforce which lessens any safety concerns that may arise. What makes them particularly useful is their ability to be used in environments where extreme temperatures are standard, while also taking on heavier loads and reducing the risk of injury to staff.
High initial cost
As is the case for any company looking to invest in new technology, the initial financial outlay can prove to be a difficult obstacle to overcome. Long term returns have to be balanced against a feasible purchasing period and offset against the reduction of labour costs. During that time it would be safe to assume that there may be some additional maintenance costs. No machine is perfect and any costing should also factor in potential downtime and disruption caused to operations as a result.
An AGVs predictability can also prove to be its own worst enemy. Getting the most out of the system is very much dependent on ensuring you can maximise its focused strengths. AGVs thrive when undertaking repetitive tasks but if this not an area you need to improve, you may not benefit too greatly from investment.
Lack of Flexibility
If the path or route needs to be altered quickly due to a new layout, or unforeseen issues, then it can take some time to halt operations and reprogram the AGV to adapt to a new workflow. At its best a distribution centre will work like a well-oiled machine, but the fast-changing demands of a warehouse means there can be a need to react quickly. If the repetitive task cycle of an AGV is suited to your operations without the need for regular fast changes, then they will be an ideal system to purchase.
With the case for moving to automation being spoken for almost everywhere you look, you might begin to feel as if your organisation is being left behind. If what you hear was to be believed, the robotic revolution has already changed the face of the world as we know it.
Fortunately, there is still some time to go before we reach that stage. There is a strong case to be made for many warehouse facilities to seriously start thinking about the use of automation, but it also has to be remembered that the introduction of the technology will not benefit everyone.
How much automation will cost is typically the first issue addressed by companies assessing the technology. The initial outlay involved in purchasing an automated system can prove to be an obstacle too large for smaller sized companies, when balanced against short term returns. Few companies will buy the system outright and instead choose to spread the bulk of the payments across a 3-5 year period. The savings will usually be seen in labour costs and increased productivity and efficiency in the area of operations in which the system has been implemented. If the financial costs do not create a potentially negative impact then this is one of the major issues out of the way.
The main reason many companies are looking towards automation is to increase capacity to meet the growing pace of demand. What needs to be looked at here is the analysis of your current capacity capabilities across every element of the workflow, including storage, employee functions and workspaces. Will the implementation of automation in one area resolve a current issue, only to create a new one elsewhere? In most cases new technology is implemented in one or two areas, rather than overhauling the entire operation. Automation is designed to resolve issues in an efficient manner and improve the full flow of distribution. If its impact is only incremental, when weighed up against the cost, the business needs may not be as urgent as you first believed.
Along with the need to meet growing demand, improving service speed and overall customer experience is key to their retention and your market growth. Not only do customers expect a vast array of products at competitive prices but also fulfilment consistency and accuracy. The addition of automation will hopefully make meaningful improvements to your warehouse supply chain but this should also be felt by the customer. If throughput increases and enhances efficiency and productivity while producing significant costs savings, then customers should also benefit as a result. If not, you may have to rethink how practical automation is at this present time. The technology improves operations and saves money in the long run, but it presents the perfect opportunity to increase competitiveness. In today’s aggressive market, improving customer experience is key to achieving that.
Many of the injuries and errors that occur within both the production and warehouse environment is due to human error. Employees are asked to undertake repetitive tasks for long periods of time which invariably creates issues. Automated equipment doesn’t tire or experience injury, all the while improving overall accuracy of the task at hand. This is an improvement that every warehouse can benefit from, no matter the size. This is worth giving serious consideration to especially if the business case for introducing automation is only a marginal one.
What can you do if you have looked at your business needs and found that the risks outweigh any obvious gains? It shouldn’t be forgotten that semi-automation can offer meaningful solutions and a cost effective gateway into using automated technology. This can be implemented in many labour intensive tasks, reducing the physical stress and strain on the workforce while enhancing efficiency. It can also be adapted to fit your current set-up, so it is in place and working in a shorter time period than full automation may require. Perhaps, most importantly, return on investment should occur in a shorter space of time primarily due to its lower costs in comparison to fully automated equipment.
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Automation is the buzz word of the moment and the subjects associated with it look set to increase in scope as the technology becomes part and parcel of warehouse life. Much has been said already about the efficiency that can be gained from it use, and the long term cost savings achieved by businesses that choose to invest.
Improving distribution productivity is not the only way in which significant cost savings can be made. Managing your energy use within the facility is key to making the most out of the tools at your disposal. It is not necessarily a subject that gets people fired up, but given how much finance is spent on heating, lighting and powering operations, its importance is too often overlooked.
The Carbon Trust conducted a survey last year and found that half of the 1,000 SMEs questioned were concerned about the cost of their energy bills. The organisation believe that savings up to 20-30% can be found through the implementation of energy efficient measures and the simple changing of routines. Below are some of the ways in which you can begin to lower the costs within your distribution centre.
Keeping the warehouse fully lit enhances safety and provides a better working environment for those who work within it. Naturally, this will mean a lot of lights, which in turn requires a lot of energy expenditure. LED lights are the best alternative to help reduce energy bills and they can also last up to 50% longer than traditional bulbs. As a recyclable material they allow you to play your part in contributing to a sustainable environment. They also emit far less heat, which helps to reduce temperature levels during the summer and in-turn lowers the use of air conditioning, cutting costs even further.
There are two ways in which doors impact on energy efficiency; their age and condition and by being left open throughout the day. When left open, heat is lost and heaters and/or cooling systems have to work harder to balance out the change in temperature. Older warehouse doors can sometimes be unreliable and slower to close, which is why the easier option is to leave them open. Ensuring there are no gaps or cracks is equally important, as is checking they are fully insulated to help maintain optimal temperature in the space.
Making full use of space
As we discussed in our article about mezzanine flooring, there are a lot of advantages to be gained from their installation into industrial spaces. One we didn’t mention at the time is energy savings. Working vertically instead of expanding operations across the ground maximises space and often means relocation is not a requirement. This obviously saves costs on the move and purchasing/rental costs, but also saves on the higher energy bills a new facility would naturally incur. If going green is a key business objective, new premises might also mean updating logistical roots and an increase in your carbon footprint.
Manage your HVAC system
In modern warehouses, HVAC systems are typically responsible for powering the heating, cooling and ventilation. The most important question to ask is, how much time and effort goes into its maintenance? There are two answers to this questions; either you are spending too much on repairs and problem solving, or you keep the filters clean and schedule regular check-ups. Those who relate to the first response can easily feel the benefit of implementing a simple schedule for check-ups. Also think about areas not in use that do not need to be cooled or heated on a regular basis, as this should produce noticeable cost savings.
The management of waste has both a direct and indirect effect on your green initiatives. Ensuring unwanted and damaged materials are cleared from the facility keeps employees safe and maximises space. To improve your carbon footprint, ensure batches of materials are separated from each other and disposed of using recyclable options. The easiest thing to do is to dump everything in the nearest landfill, which ultimately goes against every over energy efficient change you may implement inside your premises.
The robots are taking over. Or so we keeping on hearing. There is no denying that the implementation of autonomous robotics is going to have huge effect on many industries but the key will be how the introduction of the systems are managed. It’s a brave new world we are venturing into with the next level of technology taking businesses towards unexplored territory. As exciting as that can be, it also raises valid concerns and a considerable amount of uncertainty about how they can be integrated into existing processes.
From Then To Now
Before being bought by Amazon, Kiva Systems were the market leaders in producing Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) that were sold onto other companies. Naturally this stopped after Amazon decided to deploy and use them within their own distribution centres, rather than selling them onto potential competitors. There are now a number of alternatives available on the market, such as Swisslog CarryPick, Scallog System and GreyOrange Butler, who offer more flexible and scalable options.
The previous versions of these transport units, Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs), are slightly more cumbersome and require dedicated tracks to be installed which meant some restrictions were placed on where humans could work within the warehouse. There was also a considerable amount of preparation required, which is not the case with AMRs. Those issues no longer exist, as the AMRs will follow mapped their routes to avoid any obstacles or issues. This involves a human employee mapping this out for a couple of days beforehand, which should not cause too many difficulties, even for larger sized spaces.
As with the introduction of any new system, the trick is finding how to bring them together in a way that allows them to operate efficiently to optimise the operation of the warehouse as a whole. The warehouse management system (WMS) will continue to run as the central software, of course, instructing the warehouse control system (WCS) on what needs to be picked and where it needs to go. Similar to how you would with a human, AMRs can be controlled through a task queue, which makes it no different to a typical user. Jobs will be routed to either human or robotic users, with work decided on by priority and location.
With the software running through a secure cloud, this also means there is no need to bring in new hardware or software into the warehouse. Setting up an AMR also doesn’t require you to bring in an army of IT experts to get them into operation either. Even if the Wi-Fi coverage in the warehouse isn’t great, as an alternative, mobile modems can be used instead. AMRs will need to be charged which will mean the installation of docks, but these are typically very low key and offer no safety concerns to the other workers or the facility itself. Because they are autonomous robots, they take care of this themselves, without much need for ongoing maintenance or attention from other workers.
For the vast majority of warehouses, this set-up time can be as short as one week, which is a surprisingly short amount of time, given how complex and intelligent the AMRs are. So while the upfront cost will be larger, the impact on operations during this period will reduce any knock-on effect and as output increases the ROI will soon be noticeable. There are also AMRs that work hand-in-hand with humans, essentially doing the legwork of transporting the goods from one location to another.
With the exponential increase in online shopping, the demand placed on e-fulfilment warehouses is growing year on year, which makes the switch to autonomous mobile robots an inevitably for almost everyone at some point in the near future. The cost will come down and concerns will be eased, while the benefits will become far more apparent as time goes by.
As we discussed recently*, Horizontal Carousel storage systems are one of the best ways to improve the efficiency of your warehouse operation. What we have yet to discuss are the two main alternatives, which are Vertical Carousel and Vertical Lift Modules (VLM). Although there are some similarities, it is important you are aware of the differences between the three, so you can identify which one suits your requirements more closely.
It has to be said, that choosing one particular system does not restrict you from working with a combination within your warehouse. Each one has their particular pros and cons that work with well with specific types of product. That also applies to manual systems, so once you begin work with an automated system, it does not have to mean you have to transition completely. Read through our overview of Vertical Carousels and VLM’s below to see which one feels like the most natural fit for your business.
Vertical Lift Module
What is clearly noticeable about the system is how it allows for greater storage within the same footprint, which is an advantage for any storage unit. A VLM also offers great adaptability, which is particularly useful for companies that work with a wide range of products across the course of the year. Depending on the model you choose, shelf heights can extend up to 28 inches, and if placed onto the shelf through electronic eyes, the VLM will automatically adjust to the appropriate height of the item. The shelves can, of course, be adjusted manually but the automatic alteration will help to save the worker valuable time.
The flexibility of the system also allows the height of the module to be adjusted to suit the dimensions of the warehouse. Price wise they can be slightly more expensive than a Vertical Carousel, so this is a worthwhile consideration to weigh up alongside the others.
The most obvious thing about this system compared to the Horizontal version is of course the directional movement of the trays. The main benefit of this carousel is that it maximises unused vertical floor space, which is ideal for compact warehouses. A Vertical Carousel also allows you to bring together more than one unit at a time, which helps to increase throughput and picking speed. Although there is less storage compared to a Horizontal unit, the smaller footprint means you can introduce more the machines into the workspace. An added bonus is that the temperature and humidity within the unit can also be controlled quite easily.
A Vertical carousel is slower than a horizontal unit and the construction of the unit does also mean items have to be distributed evenly to prevent loads becoming unbalanced. Due to the limited bin space, this system may not be ideal if the product in question has a high turnover rate and needs regular replenishment.
It must be remembered that while this systems can produce some amazing results and a true uplift in operational performance, like any other machinery, they will rely on your input and maintenance to ensure they continue to run smoothly. Both the VLM and Vertical Carousel’s need to be serviced periodically to ensure they meet the certification levels required by legislation, as they come under the same category as forklifts and cranes.
If you are looking at these options for the first time, it’s not always easy to decide on the module that fits in with your requirements. Hopefully our information will help eliminate any initial confusion and provide you with some direction. We have vast experience of designing and installing carousels, VLM’s and many other storage systems, helping companies to expand and grow their business.
2017 has been viewed as the year when many companies migrate to SaaS (Software as a service) WMS (Warehouse Management Software) platforms, which will help to change and improve the workflow in a number of crucial areas. Working in real-time offers a whole range of crucial advantages that improve both speed and operational efficiency. SaaS WMS systems are available on almost any device, and once in place, the impact can be seen almost immediately.
For those who have not yet come across, or looked into the benefits of these systems, we’ll provide a quick overview of what exactly they can add to your business.
A ringing bell that will catch most people’s attentions in the first instance. Instead of having to invest in specialised hosting equipment or waiting for dedicated code to be created for the system, SaaS WMS can be directly connected to your existing platform. Having dedicated IT experts employed within the staff is no longer a requirement, as technical support will be provided as one of the subscription features. The payment options place you in full control of how long you commit to any particular system, meaning that you only pay for however long you are using it.
Implementation and Scalability
A great advantage is that migrating your existing inventory system into a SaaS based platform should not incur any loss of data. It all comes down to choosing the right supplier who understands how your current process and network is configured. There are no requirements to roll out staff training on backing up the system, upgrades, recovery or dealing with system administration. The provider relieves you of that pressure as it is all hosted on their server. This also applies to the growth of data from ongoing use and for any new versions and updates that may occur.
Real-time Inventory and Tracking
It almost goes without saying that having instant visibility of your inventory allows you to react to demand fluctuations, without depleting your minimum stock levels; a perilous position you’d want to avoid at all costs. The barcodes on each product will also become a rich source of information, even after they have been picked and despatched for delivery. So in-turn, each time the barcode is scanned, the additional data will be registered, allowing you to access updates on the status of the product. You can go one-step further and incorporate the transportation GPS data to create real-time tracking information.
The pricing models found in using SaaS WMS means that small to medium sized business have instant access to the best technology around. This quickly puts them on a par with some of the largest companies in the world, and gives you a significant advantage over any immediate competitor that is using an outdated or less robust system. Working on a subscription based service, the package will cover 24 hour support, 7 days a week, maintenance, upgrades, ongoing product development and of course, security of your inventory data.
This is invaluable for warehouse managers who need to gain quick access to their warehouse inventory when they are away from the office. Because it is internet based, then the information can be reached at any time and from any location, provided there is an internet connection available. Should they be needed, this enables management to initiate quick changes even if there are not physically on the premises. This sort of flexibility is the ideal situation for any business, as it leaves no operational situation out of their control.
The implementation of Horizontal Carousel Storage Systems has increased significantly over the past few years, as warehouses that require solutions for parts delivery, high speed automated picking or sortation applications search for long-term answers. What these systems have enabled companies to do is improve speed of storage and retrieval of goods in a way that is both cost-effective and reliable without having to compromise.
How It Works
A Horizontal Carousel system is, in simple terms, a succession of wire bins and shelves attached to an oval track which rotates to deliver the requested inventory to each individual operator. To ensure complete operational efficiency, they are typically used in pods. A pod consists of at least two horizontal carousels used in a workstation that utilises software and pick-to-light technology. This means when the operator is picking from one carousel, the other is positioning itself ahead of the next pick, shortening operational downtime.
The reason horizontal carousels are used in conjunction with pick-to-light technology is that it allows the operator to be guided towards the exact location of the next pick. The light tree highlights where to pick from next and the exact quantity required.
This is particularly helpful when it comes to batch picking, which used in conjunction with inventory management software, enabling the operator to pick multiple orders simultaneously. For example, when the horizontal carousel displays a stockkeeping unit, the operator can select how many is needed for each order before distributing.
The reduction in search and travel time should mean lower labour expenses, improved order accuracy and maximisation of throughput. Incorporating the horizontal carousel software into an ERP or WCS system will also augment system flow.
Aside from the many operational benefits, one of the main reasons for its increased popularity is the systems adaptability. There are a variety of widths and heights available which allows it to be customised to suit a company’s specific requirements. The ability to double stack opens up the possibility of creating multiple picking zones on separate levels, if installed within mezzanine flooring. The shelves themselves can also be adjusted and there are a number of varying bin heights and widths to choose from.
This flexibility can be implemented to support seasonal periods where higher order quantities are typically more common. For example, if a pod of four horizontal carousels is currently operated by one operator, re-organising this into two double sets makes room for an additional worker. This can be done by simply dividing the pods via the software system, which will in-turn improve speed and of course efficiency.
These type of adjustments become particularly significant for growing organisations, as they can scale up to match customer demand. If they are moving to larger premises, rather than investing in an entirely new system, they can build on-top of the existing process, cutting out additional costs that can prove to be extremely expensive and time consuming.
Of course, this is only a general overview of how a horizontal carousel system works and while we have covered some of the advantages that can be gained, the list of associated benefits are extensive. Installation of the system can also help to increase storage space and allow for a broader and more versatile product range. Perhaps most importantly of all, it will transmit a real-time inventory which will prove invaluable in terms of optimising supply chain productivity.
Changing, or moving to, an automated system is a big step for any business, which means seeing a clear return on your investment is of paramount importance. A horizontal carousel system will not only offer a sustained and reliable service, but create significant improvements to any operation.
Improving efficiency during the manufacturing phase is a never-ending process, stretching back as far as the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Business owners continue to source ways to reduce costs, while maintaining sustainable selling margins in an increasingly competitive marketplace. There is a fear that the growth of automated systems will eventually lead to the replacement of workers on the production line. This is especially true for those working in smaller organisations. This does not have to be the case. The ideal scenario is that machines are used to work alongside and assist current employees, particularly on repetitive tasks that create fatigue.
The food industry in particular has long since been a champion of automated packaging, taking advantage of the exponential leaps in technology that have occurred over the past half a century or so. For businesses thinking of moving across to automated packaging there are two main options available, all of which can be adapted to suit the size and demands of your operation.
This is very much a collaborative process between workers and the machines during the manufacturing process. One of the great benefits of this way of working is the flexibility it offers. A skilled worker has the ability to think of and apply solutions beyond the remit of most machines that have been set to work within strict parameters. Instead of waiting for the machine to address or attempt to correct the issue, they can be solved without losing valuable downtime.
If a production line currently involves the manual strapping of over 50 packages a day, adding a semi-automated machine would lead to noticeable improvements. Not only would it create a faster process and allow for more packages to be strapped, but the consistency of the packaging finish would be a lot higher. Semi-automation also allows room for operators to make adjustments to the packaging if required, rather than leaving it entirely in the hands of the machine.
Much of the reason why the food and pharmaceutical industries have turned to full automation is because of the strict industry guidelines they must adhere to. A recent study found that humans were responsible for up to 80% of errors that occurred during manufacturing in these sectors. Aside the huge fines that can be imposed, employee safety is of paramount importance. Automated machinery completely removes this concern for both worker and employer.
As long as regular maintenance is performed, packaging-line automation is not only more reliable but can be adapted to work with a wider range of products. By increasing space within the production line, it will allow for businesses to adapt and grow incrementally, rather than making commitments to larger premises that would then have to be passed onto production costs. A fully automated packaging system will not only lead to a far higher throughput but also more consistency in terms of the packaging presentation.
Of course, budget will no doubt play a key part in deciding which of these solutions are more viable. Updating out-of-date equipment is crucial within any business and striking the right balance between investment and short and long-term return encompasses a number of considerations.
If there is uncertainty about shifting from a manual process straight into one that is fully automated, a good starting point for many is a slow transitional period. Not only will many of the benefits of automation quickly become apparent, but it allows for business owners to have more control about the changeover and to train the existing workforce at a manageable pace. Turning to automation offers a wide range of benefits and is far from as daunting or scary as it may first appear to be.