Warehouse automation in stages

By Rick Pendrous contact

- Last updated on GMT

Manual trucks can be converted for automatic warehouse operation
Manual trucks can be converted for automatic warehouse operation

Related tags: Automation, Third-party logistics

The historic reluctance of third-party logistics providers (3PLs) to invest in warehouse automation is changing as technological advances enable a flexible, staged introduction which allows costs to be controlled, claimed the boss of one forklift truck supplier.

According to Steve Richmond, director of Jungheinrich UK’s Systems and Projects Division, recent advances in automation technology, are bringing down the comparatively high degree of investment required. At the same time, systems are becoming more flexible which is allowing them to adapt to the changing needs of a shifting client base, said Richmond.

“In the past, a fully automated system could involve significant capital expenditure and require extended periods to secure return on investment,”​ noted Richmond. “With many 3PL providers having to commit to relatively short-term contracts, the outlay on the type of fixed assets found in many fully automated systems – such as conveyors and stacker cranes – was often hard to justify.

Recent developments

“However, recent developments have made automation scalable and flexible and, as a result, pay-back times are cut significantly – which should encourage 3PLs to look again at the possibility of automating some of their intralogistics processes.”

Richmond gave the example of a standard operator controlled Jungheinrich VNA truck, which could, with the introduction of transponder technology, be linked to a warehouse management system.

By this arrangement, the truck could operate 25% more productively because it is automatically directed to the next picking location in the most direct route possible. “The operator doesn’t have to think about where in the storage cube he or she has to go to next – it is all done automatically,”​ he claimed.

Should the user’s needs change and, for example, 24/7 operation be introduced, the same basic machine could be converted to allow it to operate fully automatically, he added.

'Bring payback down'

“The manpower savings made by employing a fully automated VNA machine over a three-shift operation typically bring payback down to between 18 months and two-and-a-half years,”​ he said. “Taking the costs of the truck operator out of any operation running three shifts makes a huge difference to a site's running costs.”

Richmond expects it to become increasingly common for 3PLs to employ partial automation ​ hybrid systems that are part-automated and part-manual.

“In the past some companies shied away from automation because they felt that a move to an automated system would mean that every aspect of the operation would have to be automated,”​ he said.

“This is simply not the case. Automation no longer means that every aspect of the warehouse or distribution centre has to be automated – just the parts of it that will benefit most from automation.”

In many applications, a strong case can often be made for automating the ‘bulk pallet’ operation and then designing the ‘picking operation’ to be as flexible as possible, noted Richmond.

The ability to phase the introduction of automation within a distribution centre or warehouse should be highly attractive to 3PL companies, he added.

“Consider a 3PL contract where the initial volumes dictate a low level manual forward picking area, (using conventional equipment) supported by an automated bulk store. As and when the client's volumes grow, the picking area can be developed by increasing the number of pick faces and levels and then utilising high-level order picking equipment.”

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