The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives irrevocably. The way we play, how we live and socialize and how we work has been altered by this insidious virus. Some changes will fade, like the knee-jerk reaction to hearing someone cough loudly in public. But other changes will stick around, like wearing a mask when you’re feeling under the weather and have to go out.
One industry that has been affected by the global pandemic is the shipping industry. With significant disruptions to their supply chains, companies have been scrambling to find novel ways to preserve the fulfillment process with warehouse storage solutions like full automation.
Once considered financially unviable, full automation is now fast becoming a reality as warehouses and distribution centers struggle to keep up with increased demand for products and a less-efficient supply chain. Many major companies, like Amazon, have been investing in automation technology and AI for years, and the pandemic has allowed these businesses to implement automated technologies quickly and with outstanding success. As the threat of COVID minimizes, other companies may want to follow suit.
Here is my guide to warehouse automation and why you should consider a fully automated warehouse once COVID ends.
How COVID Affected Supply Chains
Traditional warehouses have not seen significant changes in their operation for years. Often warehouse workers run the show, and the complete process has a fairly low-tech supply and demand approach.
Adopting innovations like a fully automated warehouse is costly and requires a total overhaul of most warehouse’s day-to-day business. The prevailing idea has been: If it isn’t broken, why fix it? Then, COVID happened.
Now companies are scrambling to find raw resources and make deliveries on time. Safety measures like total sanitation and social distancing have made running a warehouse floor difficult.
Automation is just one way that warehouses have adapted to survive in the era of COVID. Companies have found that they can avoid excessive delays by keeping more inventory on hand and keeping their workers safe by increased social distancing. But the change that has made the most substantial difference in whether a company sinks or floats is in the realm of automation.
To understand how COVID is accelerating AI in logistics and other areas of supply lines, you need to understand the benefits full automation offers.
What Is a Fully Automated Warehouse?
A warehouse with a minimal amount of people on the floor and AI and robots doing much of the grunt work is known as a fully automated warehouse. Social distancing makes this configuration highly desirable.
In the wake of the pandemic, automated warehouses have barely felt the squeeze, whereas more traditional ones have had to shut down or have slowed production to almost a halt. Automated storage and retrieval have let warehouse managers reclaim floor space and keep their workers safer.
When you adopt an automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), you can recover up to 85 percent of your warehouse’s floor space. This space is crucial in a post-pandemic world, as additional floor area makes social distancing regulations easier to maintain.
When a warehouse adopts automation, it doesn’t need the same floor plan as a more traditional storage and distribution hub. There are three basic levels of automation: low-tech, medium-level and high-level.
● Low-Level Automation
Most warehouses have at least this basic automation level as they print out orders and send receipts and other documents electronically. Warehouses at this level still have people running the day-to-day operations and rely on print records and orders.
As the world moves closer to a post-pandemic reality, this basic automation level may soon be obsolete.
● Mid-Level Automation
The next level of automation puts machines in decision-making positions. Warehouse management systems (WMS) use automated systems to delegate tasks and oversee processes. When you adopt WMS that employ this autonomy level, you’re moving toward being fully automated with radio-frequency scanners and other order picking systems.
● Full Automation
An RFID-enabled fully automated warehouse management system can catapult your shipping company to the head of the pack. With high-tech handling systems, machines do most of the work in a fully automated distribution center. Machines and computers receive the orders, fulfill them and make sure they’re packed and addressed correctly.
With RFID technology, you can run and monitor your warehouse in real-time. There are two fundamental ways that goods move around within the warehouse: person-to-goods and goods-to-person.
In the former, humans have to run around the warehouse, assembling orders, and then the automation takes over with shipping and handling. A goods-to-person order picking system has a machine gather the goods that make up an order and deliver them to the worker at a picking spot.
A fully automated system that uses RFID technology to record and transmit messages throughout its entire warehouse process is a step ahead. As the direct influences of COVID and the safety precautions loosen, it will define the future of warehouse operations.
Automated Additions for Your Warehouse Procedures
Going fully automated is costly, especially in the financial aftermath of COVID. However, there are small automation changes you can make moving forward that can expedite your orders and transform your workspace.
Even minute alterations require thoughtfulness, like making sure you have an ERG book available for your employees. Some adoptions you can make are assisted guided vehicles (AGVs), which are essentially robots that convey goods around your warehouse. An AGV is a box with sensory technology that runs between towers of products on a preset track, gathering goods.
Forklift automation is another ideal example that can make a big difference, especially in older warehouses looking to update quickly. Traditionally, a worker runs a forklift and moves multi-tiered racks around a warehouse. No worker is needed with automated forklifts, and these robots can work even in a traditionally configured space.
COVID has dramatically changed the shipping industry, from how we work to the way warehouses operate to how goods are delivered. Moving forward to a COVID-free world, a fully automated warehouse can keep workers safe and save companies time and money.