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Warehouse automation has the potential to drastically transform warehouse operations over the next several years. Advances in new technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, and augmented devices now give workers the ability to perform more work with less time and effort. This allows warehouses to achieve greater levels of efficiency while increasing throughput. A recent survey conducted by Zebra showed that 77% of warehouse operations professionals admit that they need to upgrade technology to modernize their warehouses but are slow to do so.

New fulfillment schemes such as on-demand warehousing have required operators to create a flexible and adaptable environment. In this post, we’ll discuss how to build an automated warehouse and the 3 core technologies that are enabling these new capabilities. Warehouse automation doesn’t need to be a complete transition, and many warehouse managers are choosing partial and hybrid deployments. Each company must find the right balance between automation cost and performance.

1. Invest in Digital Software Technology

Person holding a tablet in front of ASRS system in a warehouse

Like most business processes these days, warehouse operations should be coordinated through a dedicated software platform. Using a program such as a warehouse management solution (WMS) makes it possible to customize roles, manage fulfillment workflows, and automate routine work. Many critical warehouse processes such as invoicing, picking, and sorting can be drastically improved by warehouse management software combined with automation hardware. A WMS can also be connected to other software tools using an API to create interoperability between your digital systems.

Most warehouse management platforms on the market today also provide cloud deployments, allowing employees to access the system from nearly any device or location. These cloud setups can connect office employees, warehouse personnel, and logistics partners to create a complete fulfillment loop. When configuring a cloud-based warehouse management system you should place a high priority on security and review data storage practices. You can also customize the analytics and reporting features of your software to give your team complete visibility into all critical warehouse operations.

2. Implement Barcode Labels and RFID Tags

Another important step when automating a warehouse is adding barcode labels or RFID tags to your assets. These assets can include fixed equipment in your warehouse, work-in-progress units, spare parts, and finished goods. Attaching tags to shipments and packages allows you to track the movement of each item until it reaches the chosen destination. There are a variety of warehouse barcode label solutions available for every warehouse application, such as warehouse floor labels, warehouse rack labels, retro-reflective barcode labels and signs for long-range warehouse applications, returnable container, tote, and tray barcode labels, pallet barcode labels, and more.

After assigning a unique barcode label to an item, this information can be added to your WMS to create a reliable recordkeeping system. Additional data, such as maintenance records or production costs, can be added to each entry and used by your finance team to help control costs. The most important considerations when tagging your inventory and assets is to create clear procedures and properly train staff to create, update, apply and decommission your asset tags when necessary.

3. Integrate Robotics Technology

Robotics technology (cobot) in a warehouse

Perhaps the most critical component for advanced warehouse automation is robotics technology. There are many different forms of automation hardware that are useful in a warehouse environment. These can be used independently or, at times, combined to create a highly automated warehouse management system. Some of the most popular technologies are:

  • Collaborative Robots (Cobots). A collaborative robot is designed to assist pickers on the warehouse floor and make it easier to perform basic tasks. These cobots can also be used to implement automated storage and retrieval (ASRS), a rapid and modern method for moving inventory in a warehouse. Several different cobot designs are available, and many allow a high level of customization so you can choose technology that matches your warehouse needs.
  • Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs). One of the most common AGV types is automated forklifts. These modern forklifts use technology such as machine vision and pathfinding to automate pallet movements completely or partially. Automation can also be added to other warehouse vehicles using attached sensors and other integrated hardware. A common practice for choosing AGVs is to review existing warehouse practices and select technology that can improve upon the work you are already doing.
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Many businesses now use drones, also called UAVs, to scan pallets and totes throughout a warehouse facility. This can save significant time as these drones can fly to any location in the building to complete a scan. Drones can also be used to monitor shipping lanes and the exterior grounds surrounding a warehouse to supplement existing surveillance and security practices. The use of UAVs is expected to dramatically increase in the coming years as companies use them to complete last-mile deliveries and advanced forms of inventory automation.

There is an overwhelming amount of technology available to automate warehouses today. As voice tasking and user interfaces continue to improve, workers will be able to interface with these tools in ways we can hardly imagine today. One of the best ways to prepare your warehouse for the future is developing a steady but aggressive approach for assessing, selecting, and implementing new automation technologies.

Keeping up with the latest warehouse automation trends will also help you understand how these new tools can have a positive impact on warehouse performance and worker efficiency.

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