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  • Ed Lawson

Warehouse Automation Approaches Discussion

Intent hosted a discussion around approaches to Automation, looking at how to kick off your automation project, how to shortlist and select the right solution, and how to work most effectively with 3PL, solution providers and advisors. The discussion (April 2023) focused in on how important it is not to jump ahead into selecting a solution, and that it is crucial to define exact requirements before engaging solution providers. Below is an overview of some of the key points and takeaways.

Key Advice & Takeaways

  1. Data will never be perfect or even ‘great’. But it’s essential to get good data together to help determine what automation solution is the best fit.

  2. Generally two approaches to automation with existing operation

  3. Automate the tasks people undertake, eg automated reach trucks - move to self guided.

  4. What is the task/activity we’re trying to do - and how can automation deliver this.

When you have an established operation - quite often people ask how we can automate this task. Remove the human but don’t change the task. That generally delivers suboptimal results.

Growth - trying to forecast is challenging. Different investment stages - when do we invest to create additional capacity. Solutions must be scaleable/flexible. You might generate six permutations of flow based on growth rates to see how the solution will cater to those. You can then create the performance specification: storage, receipt, output throughput. How will automation deliver to that in each scenario.

Funding - if automation is going to be bolted to the ground - who puts the money in, who owns the kit.

3PL: are they looking at the full range of automation options - not just the ones they have a relationship with. 3PLs are unlikely to have a clearly defined methodology around matching with business needs. Be clear on what value the 3PL is adding at each stage. Most 3PLs have a light touch on automation - because there is a shortage of automation expertise. 3PL typically makes money through a margin on hours in a building - automation changes the game.

Owning the automation will allow for future changes to 3PL. 3PLs need to upskill their teams to be able to manage automated sites.

Don’t jump into solution investigation too early. Engaging providers too soon is not ideal. Better to work out what the intention is - what aligns best with our ongoing business strategy.

Doing this can add a year onto the journey! Get the internal alignment first. Then go into scoping, performance specification. Then you can begin to determine what type of automation you need. Presenting providers with a defined need will ensure you get good engagement from the solution suppliers.

Independent solution design is critical, rather than being led by integrators. You need to be aware of what the strengths and weaknesses are to each type of automation.

Implementing cobots - optimising cobots is the modern challenge of optimising productivity.

Sometimes there’s insufficient volume to justify cobots. How many bots do we need - to ensure correct balance of bots vs humans. What happens on quiet days?

Flow management is crucial - ensure you are using the analytics tools to monitor flow and performance. Hourly checking will generate those insights and ensure the automation is being used optimally.

Business strategy and rightsizing: to implement an automation strategy you will need to consider the SKU range - will you reduce long-tail SKUs? How will this affect automation strategy? Keep coming back to that question of ‘what is the business strategy’?

Thanks to our guest expert, Simon Dixon of Hatmill

Hatmill is a supply chain and logistics consultancy provider. Hatmill was established 14 years ago, and has grown to become one of the largest UK Logistics consultants, with particular specialism in automation 10/11.

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