Why Incremental Automation Makes Sense for the Warehouse

WMS Automation

As warehouse and distribution center operations continue to grow in both size and complexity, many businesses are scrambling to invest in automated solutions that enable them to keep pace with the demands of global e-commerce and customer expectations.

A rushed implementation of warehouse automation technology may come at a cost however. In addition to the possible misalignment of technology and human workers in your warehouse operation, a hasty implementation process can rob your organization of valuable learning opportunities, limiting the availability of insights that are vital to the long-term success of your automation initiatives. 

Additionally, the push for automated warehouse technology doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s time for the wholesale replacement of existing systems and processes. In fact, there are many reasons why incremental automation is probably the best path forward for your operation. 

Successful warehouse automation doesn’t happen overnight 

Automated solutions continue to gain momentum in manufacturing and related industries. For example, many machining facilities are moving toward “lights out machining,” a process that uses automation to perform unattended work routines for several hours a day. By using automation to tap into unattended capacity, machine shops gain the ability to meet growing production demand without substantially increasing overhead. 

Similar opportunities exist along the supply chain, underscoring the need for manufacturers, suppliers, and distributors to prioritize the implementation of additional automation solutions in the warehouse. The question isn’t whether you need to pursue additional automation in the warehouse, but when — and how — you will accomplish it. 

Savvy supply chain veterans understand that the most successful technology transformations happen at a deliberate pace. Today’s manufacturing and distribution operations are far too complex to rip and replace entire systems. In many cases, even the smallest process changes have the potential to cause downtime, reductions in output and other negative outcomes your operation simply can’t afford to risk.  

The human element in warehouse automation 

To avoid unintended consequences, manufacturing and distribution leaders should adopt an incremental approach to the implementation of automation technology. Similar to other technology implementations (e.g., basic barcode tracking and the integration of RFID into inventory operations), the implementation of advanced automation applications holds the potential to significantly improve process efficiency. But regardless of the automation solution, it’s essential to deploy the application using a measured approach that keeps humans at the center of the process. 

Here’s why: Automation doesn’t replace human workers; it only changes their role in the process. The overnight transformation of workers’ roles and other key operational elements is an unrealistic aspiration because it doesn’t take into account the critical role humans play in the manufacturing supply chain. 

The implementation of advanced automation applications requires careful consideration of how automation will impact the human element in key warehouse routines. But adequate consideration of humans’ role in the process is often overlooked if the implementation of automated technology moves too quickly or lacks a staged approach. 

So, whether you’re automating a single line or rolling out an automated refresh of your entire warehouse operation, the implementation imperative remains the same — adopt a measured approach that enables you to properly align automation with human activity in the warehouse. Without proper planning and a deliberate, measured approach, automation can do more harm than good. Incremental automation allows you to properly consider the role of your human employees as well as the needs and concerns of upstream and downstream partners, significantly improving the likelihood of a successful implementation.

Pete Zimmerman

North American Software Sales Manager