How COVID-19 is Accelerating the Shift to Warehouse Automation

Amid all of this uncertainty, there’s one element of warehousing that seems like an increasingly sure bet: the use of automation. With the robotics revolution already in full swing, many businesses are coming round to the idea of warehouse automation, and the benefits it can have in the long term. Here’s what you need to know about automation in 2020, and how it’s risen to meet the moment.

Steady progress

Warehouses have been in the process of modernisation for some years already. Adoption of warehouse management systems (WMS) is now reported at well over 90%, while the use of paper-based picking systems fell below 50% for the first time in 2018. Many warehouses are now looking to take greater advantage of their WMS by using sensors and other devices, such as sending stock information using mobile RF scanning.
While stock management has changed from a purely manual system to one partly managed by software, it’s already possible to automate this entire process. Through the use of sensors and robots, inventory management can be done almost completely autonomously, without any human intervention.
Warehouse operators continue to rank human error as a primary issue with inventory fulfilment, while attracting and retaining workers is becoming more of a challenge. Safety concerns are also persistent, as is the snowballing growth in SKUs, with warehouses storing more products and operating for longer hours than ever before.

Automatic for the people

What the industry now faces – along with so many others – is a confluence of threats and opportunities. On the one hand, you have the uncertainty of the present situation with COVID-19, and the certain disruption to be caused by Brexit. On the other hand, you have the snowballing popularity of online shopping, which brings with it a huge demand for warehouse space, particularly in and around urban areas.
One of the issues highlighted by both Brexit and the coronavirus is the potential for supply chains to get backed up, bringing temporary shortages in certain goods. In order to anticipate and deal with these shortfalls, it’s necessary to store surplus goods in an efficient manner and ensure that goods reach retailers and other clients as quickly as possible. This is where automation comes into play and can alleviate some of the burden of current events.
Warehouse automation doesn’t magically make warehouses bigger, but it can allow more stock to be organised in the same space. A good WMS and system of automated vehicles or shuttles can allow for multiple SKUs to be stored and retrieved in a dense racking format, with no risk of losing or misidentifying goods. With full automation, meanwhile, you can keep a warehouse like this running almost 24/7, ensuring that the supply chain never sleeps even as you do.
This is of particular interest when facing the issue of the coronavirus. Illness and social distancing requirements demand that businesses operate at reduced capacity and may even have to stop operating altogether. This is not to mention the need for preventative measures such as sanitiser, one-way systems, or deep cleaning in the event of an infection, all of which create inefficiencies and an additional cost burden for the business. Automation has the potential to reduce or eliminate these at a time when it is needed most.

Viva la Revolución

With automation being more readily accepted and technology advancing, there is the potential for a genuine revolution, something the Germans have coined as ‘Industry 4.0’ – the idea that every step in the manufacturing and logistics process will be networked and tracked, if not entirely automated. Factories will create goods with robots and load them into autonomous vehicles, which will then drive them to warehouses, which will then unload and store them automatically.
We’ve already seen the developments in technology used by the likes of Amazon in recent years, with multiple stages of the ordering process now being fully automated, and employees sharing its distribution centres with autonomous vehicles. We’ve also seen advances in driverless cars, as well as the successes (and drawbacks) of Ocado’s fully automated grocery distribution centres.
There are a few obvious concerns amongst this. The first is that the widespread adoption of automation could lead to job losses, something employees are naturally worried about. While some people would be able to retrain as engineers or supervisors, the reduction in labour costs is part of the appeal of automation to business owners.
Beyond this, there is the question of how a rise in automation might impact on our national infrastructure. The rollout of self-driving vehicles is likely to be contingent on widespread 5G coverage, as the high speeds and reliability of these networks are necessary for cars to relay and process data, helping them to avoid accidents. The impact may also be felt on our broadband infrastructure, which would have to carry data from a myriad of new devices, all reporting sensory information to each other and across external networks.
Fundamentally then, the country may be at a crossroads. While the pandemic is certainly driving businesses to find innovative solutions to labour problems, further advances in automation may hit a roadblock with infrastructure, and concerns around employment. With the combined threat of Brexit, the government has an opportunity to make the UK an epicentre for the technology – but it will require joined-up and forward thinking from all parties concerned.
About the Author
This post was written by James Beale, Operations Manager of Invicta Pallet Racking. Having worked with the company since 2008, he continues to deliver strategic planning for the development of the Invicta Group across Europe, North America and the Middle East.

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