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Posted by Stephanie on March 11, 2024

Distribution centers and warehouses play a sizable role in the logistics industry. Logistics is a form of supply chain management that maintains the efficient flow of goods. Like many industrial facilities, warehouses have been using automation at an increasing rate. 

According to a recent report by Interact Analysis, the warehouse automation market is expected to reach $69 billion in 2025, up from $30 billion in 2020.

Before automation became prevalent, many warehousing tasks were performed manually, which was more expensive and time-consuming. However, automation has made warehousing more efficient and accurate in recent years. The logistics industry has been transformed to account for the spike in eCommerce popularity. From automated conveyor systems to warehouse management software, many types of automation are helping to improve productivity. 

This article delves into warehouse automation and how it’s set to revolutionize logistics over the next decade. You’ll learn about the many types of advanced technology installed in warehouses and why this form of automation has become more popular.

Forklift in Warehouse

Evolution of Warehousing

Over the years, warehousing has undergone many changes. Traditional warehouses were often used as standard storage spaces where companies left goods until needed. However, this type of warehousing had many limitations. For example, space could have been used more efficiently. Manual warehousing typically resulted in facilities needing to be well below capacity. In this scenario, companies were tasked with paying high rental or mortgage costs for buildings they only partially used. 

Traditional warehousing also caused problems with inventory. Manual tracking systems experienced errors regularly, which meant discrepancies with the inventory levels. 

Many of the processes performed in traditional warehouses were labor-intensive. Manual labor was error-prone and more expensive, and order fulfillment also needed to be faster. With the rapid rise of eCommerce, warehousing practices needed to evolve and become more dynamic and efficient. Today, warehouses are far more than just storage spaces. 

Driving Forces Behind Warehouse Automation

There are many reasons why warehouse automation has become more prevalent across numerous industries in recent years, the primary of which is the eCommerce boom. Online shopping exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, which placed considerable stress on warehouses that needed to process high orders accurately and quickly. Consumers began to expect faster deliveries as well. Warehouses are required to adopt automation to meet these stringent demands.

During the 21st century, supply chains have become increasingly complex because of the need to handle global logistics. Warehouses require advanced technology to coordinate worldwide movements and manage their inventory

Significant labor challenges in the past also pushed more companies to automation. Along with higher labor costs, companies were also dealing with labor shortages, making investing in automation more feasible.

Automated technology has advanced rapidly over the past five years, so more warehouses are using it. Technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, and intelligent sensors have facilitated more affordable automation.

Warehouse with Bundled Uprights and Beams

Key Technologies in Warehouse Automation

Automation can take many forms in a general warehouse setup, from goods-to-person systems to robotics and autonomous vehicles. These technologies can increase accuracy, make operations more efficient, and reduce labor expenses

Robotics and autonomous vehicles have advanced rapidly over the past decade. These systems can work with humans to streamline warehouse processes. Robotics can be used for inventory management, material handling, and order-picking tasks. They’re outfitted with sophisticated algorithms and intelligent sensors to navigate warehouses and take optimal routes. 

Autonomous guided vehicles (AVGs) are robots built with navigation systems that allow them to move specific items around the warehouse. Compared to AVGs, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are more flexible. An AMR can quickly adapt to shifting layouts in a warehouse.

Conveyor systems are crucial in a warehouse layout. However, modern conveyor systems are automated to optimize product flow more effectively. For example, these systems contain software that can dynamically route different items with real-time data. This type of software helps to limit bottlenecks and congestion.

Goods-to-person (G2P) systems are new to warehouses. In a traditional warehouse, personnel must move long distances when retrieving goods. A G2P system can bring these goods directly to the worker. 

For example, you could select vertical carousels for your warehouse, which are rotating shelves that provide workers with the necessary items at the right height. This technology reduces arduous bending. G2P systems can also involve shuttles, which are storage and retrieval units that can move products to a picking station. Workers can access these items without needing to retrieve them from storage.

Automated sorting and packing technologies have made it easier for items to be prepared for shipping. Everything from robotics to machine vision is used to complete the sorting and packing processes efficiently. Smaller and more flexible robots can quickly pack items without wasting space. Machine vision technology uses image recognition software to find and sort items based on shape and size.

Warehouse with Pallet Racking and Boltless Shelving
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warehouse management system (WMS) is necessary for controlling numerous automated processes. For example, this software provides personnel with real-time inventory level monitoring, simplifying management. With this software in place, you should be able to avoid overstock and out-of-stock issues. 

WMS software offers real-time tracking, which lets you see how goods move in the warehouse. This data allows you to make quick decisions. Order fulfillment features are also available in WMS systems, which should improve the efficiency and accuracy of processed orders. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning have also been integrated into many warehouses. These technologies are becoming more accurate with each passing year. Currently, there are several ways that AI and machine learning can enhance warehouse operations.

Machine learning algorithms can predict customer demand patterns, which allows warehouses to plan labor resources and inventory. 

AI can analyze historical data and compare it with current demand to effectively predict future inventory. Warehouses can use this technology to maintain ideal stock levels.

AI also facilitates quality control. Vision systems with this technology can identify specific product issues, ensuring customers receive only high-quality items. AI algorithms can optimize scheduling and routing tasks in a warehouse, reducing travel times.

Safety and Collaboration in Warehouse Automation

Even though automation benefits all warehouses and distribution centers, safety protocols must be followed to ensure personnel remain safe. If you use robots, consider implementing comprehensive safety protocols to reduce accidents. Improving efficiency in your warehouse with automation is only possible if human workers and robots can perform their duties in the same building without issue. 

No matter the types of automated systems you choose to install, every employee who will interact with them must receive proper training and know how to use these automation tools properly. 

Consider collaborative robots for the best results. These machines can work safely with humans, which should boost efficiency. They often perform more repetitive tasks and can be overseen by human operators.

Warehouse Dock Doors

Cost Savings and Scalability of Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation allows you to scale your operations and save considerable money quickly. Even though the initial costs are high, you can limit labor-related expenses. You’ll no longer need to hire as much seasonal or temporary labor. 

Your warehouse should also have fewer errors and customer returns. Manual warehousing has a higher potential for mistakes. In comparison, automation reduces errors during the initial part of order fulfillment. By minimizing mistakes, you can improve customer satisfaction and reduce the costs of returns.

If your company is primed to grow, you can quickly scale automated systems up or down, making it easier to meet customer demands. When optimizing your warehouse space, these systems can help you use the building more efficiently.

Future Trends in Warehouse Automation

Automation has a bright future. Numerous trends, from drones to sustainable warehousing, will become even more prevalent in the coming years. For example, drones can be used for everything from facility monitoring and inventory management to last-mile delivery. IoT integration allows warehouses to track inventory and equipment in real-time.

Wearable devices like exoskeletons and smart glasses have the potential to improve worker safety and productivity while also reducing the number of injuries. Sustainable warehousing comes in many forms. Your warehouse can obtain Eco-friendly packaging materials or select a green building design. You could also switch to more energy-efficient operations that reduce your company’s carbon footprint.

Conclusion

With the rise of eCommerce and the high customer demand for online shopping, warehouse automation is more important than ever. Automation is necessary to effectively manage the supply chain and perform logistics tasks without delay. The logistics industry will also continue to evolve during the next decade, allowing it to adapt to future logistics needs. If you want to stay ahead in the logistics industry, embrace automation and its advantages.

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