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The Indian logistics industry is witnessing tremendous growth with the e-Commerce boom. One of the supporting functions of the logistics industry is warehousing. Warehousing involves receiving, storing, picking, packing and shipping products to the destination. These are repetitive tasks which are time-consuming and prone to errors when done manually. Warehouse automation was born to automate repetitive tasks and being more efficient by cutting out manual errors.

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What is warehouse automation?

Automation means identifying repetitive tasks and finding methods to automate them to decrease the time consumed by these tasks. Warehouse automation is the process of making the movement of inventory into the warehouse, within the warehouse and outside the warehouse automatic.

Here is a warehouse automation example to help understand warehouse automation better:

A real-life example for warehouse automation Nike is one of the companies appreciated for their green logistics centres.  This is largely possible because of the warehouse automation system that the company has introduced for their logistics operations.The automation features a sorting system that contributes to the operational efficiency by providing the flexibility to sort flats (packages with height more than 6.125 inches but no more than 12 inches and length more than 11.5 inches but no more than 15 inches) and parcels (height more than 12 inches but no more than 17 inches and length more than 15 inches but no more than 27 inches) on the same system.

The sorting system also allows Nike to combine multiple sortation processes. The onwards shipment of whole cartons, cartons which contain a single batch of the same item and cartons that hold a mix of individual items is sorted by Nike’s sorting system.

The ‘green sortation system’ also uses solar heating to minimise the environmental impact of the centre.

Types of warehouse automation

The types of warehouse automation simply mean the different types of automation generally followed for each process under warehousing. Here are some of the generally used methods of automation for warehousing:

  • Handheld terminals (HHT)

Handheld terminals are for tracking goods that are coming into the warehouse. The terminal creates and assigns the picking of the stock at the receiving centre. The users managing the picking and storing can flag any stock issues. This data is fed into the WMS which gives the logistics manager visibility of the goods received at the storage location.

  • Goods-to-Person (GTP)

Goods-to-person fulfilment is one of the most popular methods used in a warehouse for increasing efficiency and reducing congestion. This method uses conveyors, carousels, and vertical lift systems for the automatic movement of goods for fulfilling purchase orders. This type of automation identifies the right items using SKU codes. Goods-to-person technology can help you book the products into the storage facility and once they are in the warehouse track their movement. This helps warehouse staff find the required products faster, eliminating wasted walk and search time.

  • Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)

AS/RS are machines including material-carrying vehicles, tote shuttles and mini-loaders to store and retrieve materials or products. Even though most Indian warehousing centres lack this technology, it is increasingly being adopted by big Indian warehousing automation companies and retail giants. Companies utilise this system when there is a high volume of purchase orders and space restrictions for storage.

  • Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs)

AGVs are used in large and simple warehouses that transport materials directly to production lines that are located next to the storage facility. For example, AGVs can transport raw materials (timber) from the warehouse and deliver materials directly to production facility (producing furniture) that is located a mile away from the warehouse.

AGVs are operated by a person guiding the vehicle according to the instructions provided by the automated system.

  • Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs):

As the name suggests these are robots that can work independently and are more flexible than AGVs with the help of GPS systems. They employ advanced laser guidance systems that can locate each product in the warehouse and carry it to the packing zone upon receiving a purchase order. You can program the routes they take within the warehouse which automates the picking process.

Benefits of warehouse automation

Warehouse automation increases speed and efficiency all warehousing tasks. There are several third-party logistics service providers who offer warehousing solutions as a value-added 3PL service. To keep services up-to-date and competitive these 3PL warehouses use the latest warehouse automation technology, are strategically located, and cost-effective for MSME businesses.

Here are some of the important benefits of warehouse automation.

  • Increasing speed

Automation takes care of repetitive tasks which means it can instantaneously identify the locations of all items according to the order of your purchase orders. This helps the automation systems optimise routes within the warehouse. This means that once purchase orders are processed the warehouse automations system can automatically process the order.

Once it processes the order it either tasks the warehouse staff to pick the item or if the warehouse is equipped with an AGV or AMR, the warehouse automation software sends the information to these machines which will set their routes within the warehouse.

  • Maximising space

When warehouse automation systems are armed with robots, it helps the product retrieval and storage processes get completed quickly. This reduces the need for wide aisles to accommodate large pallets and pallet jacks for easy and quick carrying of products to packing centers.

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Also read: Palletised shipping and how it works

  • Better inventory counts

Having warehouse automation software which means automatic inventory counts which reduces human error. Warehouse automation seeks to streamline inventory management allowing for more accurate inventory counts and data.

  • Enhanced safety

The products are handled much less compared to a traditional warehousing system. This is because the warehousing staff handle products only when the software gives them a notification of a purchase order. This increases the accuracy of order fulfillment and reduced material handling leading to reduced damage to products.

Warehouse automation trends in 2023

A report from Bank of America states that, by 2025, 45% of all manufacturing will be executed by robotic technology. This trend has already been initialised by a few companies like Raymond Limited, an Indian textile giant, and Foxconn Technology, a China-based supplier for tech giants like Samsung, by planning to replace workers by technology in their factories.

Here are a few trends in warehouse automation that are being adopted by companies around the globe to make warehousing more efficient with access to real time visibility:

  • Warehouse logistics, to bring the best of automated warehousing to drive logistics efficiency
  • Use of robotic technology for movement of goods
  • Use of automation software data to pinpoint flaws and solve problems
  • Use of AI to determine the location of products
  • Use of Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) to speed up the movement of goods within the warehouse and replace manual movement of goods
  • Use of cobots or collaborative robots to automate storage and retrieval system

While the future of warehouse automation is predicted to be completely taken over by robotic technology, cobots and software, the technology would still need a logistics management system in place. This would be supervised by a logistics manager who predicts any supply chain disruptions using data points provided by the software.