The Pre-Automation Checklist: 4 Steps to Achieve a Smooth Implementation
With increasing pressure to move e-commerce goods faster while reducing costs, combined with strained labor markets, the allure of automation technology is clear — get more done with less pressure on your warehouse staff.
Not all automation is created equal, however, these tools — from autonomous mobile robots and automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS) to conveyor systems and semi-automated packaging — can only have a positive impact on your warehouse performance when you thoroughly understand your operation and your unique challenges and constraints. As you start to explore automation solutions, keep this pre-automation checklist in mind to ensure a smooth and productive implementation:
Step 1: Walk the floor.
Identifying opportunities on paper might be the impetus for an automation project, but until you invest time observing processes in action, it can be difficult to know the value automation can provide. Set aside some time to fully observe the entire flow of products, from receiving to replenishment, to picking and packing. Understand not only where hiccups are occurring, but why. For example, it might be that employees are working harder than necessary if goods don’t follow an efficient, logical flow.
By taking the time to observe several putaway cycles, talking with employees one-on-one, or even getting involved in the process yourself, you’ll have a deeper understanding of exactly which problems need to be solved — and how that will support your search for the right automation technology. Fix deficiencies in your process first and then when you apply automation to an optimized process, you'll gain higher efficiencies and ensure quality outcomes.
Step 2: Define your objectives and pull in your cross-functional team.
Once you’ve uncovered your top pain points, put them in writing and assign targets for improvement. Establishing consistent, achievable objectives up front, such as cutting packing waste or reducing pick time, will avoid headaches caused by shifting priorities during implementation.
It’s also important to take the time to get everyone on the same page and agree to objectives as a team. Many automation projects are derailed because the warehouse management team has big plans for technology, only to find out the finance team is only willing to agree to half of the investment necessary for a big transformation, or risk management isn't aligned to a certain solution. Pull in all your stakeholders at the start of the project. Make sure they understand the pain points you're trying to solve, as well as how different automation technologies work and the value they'll bring to warehouse efficiency.
Step 3: Understand your inventory.
As you start exploring types of automation to address your objectives, don’t forget to factor in any special considerations necessary for the types of products moving through your warehouse. For example, working with food products will require tracking and meeting FDA compliance guidelines, while working with fragile goods might require more careful picking and packing processes. Odd SKU dimensions or attributes must also be considered, or you may risk damaging goods as they move through the warehouse.
In addition, look for automation that considers these requirements and also adjusts to maximize efficiency when picking and packing these goods. For example, advanced automation can measure and analyze order attributes to determine exactly how much corrugate and packing material is needed for efficient, less wasteful shipments.
Step 4: Allow for flexibility.
Completing thorough due diligence and designing your automation solution to meet realistic objectives can help prevent process headaches down the road. However, supply chain managers also know to be realistic: demand is going to change; profiles are going to change, especially when dealing with the e-commerce marketplace. An otherwise under-demanded product could skyrocket in popularity, or an overstocked product might not sell as planned. Investing heavily in fixed automation such as conveyor systems can lead to more efficient processes when sales are going according to plan, but if the system is sitting idle then it's not providing the anticipated benefits.
As you’re selecting automation tools, make sure to keep variability in mind. Employing systems which are flexible, such as autonomous mobile robots that can vary their routes and activities, can make it easier to adapt to changes in the demand of goods.
Plan for Success
Automation can work wonders for efficiency and productivity throughout your warehouse. Be careful, however, not to just invest in the latest, greatest technology. By taking a thorough look at your current operations, gaining buy-in across your team, planning your flow based on your unique requirements, and leaving room for demand shifts, you can implement an automation solution that successfully drives the value for which you're looking.
Felix Vicknair is vice president, supply chain solutions at Kenco, a 3PL provider offering supply chain, fulfillment, distribution, transportation, and material handling solutions.
Felix is the vice president of supply chain solutions at Kenco and has extensive global experience providing design and process excellence to deliver high-performing supply chain solutions. With over 2 decades of a supply chain focus, a variety of roles in both internal operations and external consulting, he has supported companies across industries to develop robust supply chains, cross-functional synergies, and operational excellence.