Automated storage and retrieval systems: what are the advantages & disadvantages?

Chris Dunakin Last Updated: November 18th, 2019

An automated storage and retrieval system, commonly known as AS/RS, is a computer-controlled system which effectively stores and replenishes loads from specific locations.

AS/RS technology is widely used in warehouses, manufacturing units, and distribution centers for materials transport and inventory management purposes. These systems are commonly used in cold storage, automotive, pharmaceutical manufacturing, food and beverage, and e-commerce applications. In this article, we’ll talk about the advantages and disadvantages of an automated storage and retrieval system.

Advantages of automated storage and retrieval systems

Advantages of automated storage and retrieval systems

Automated storage and retrieval systems have several advantages for warehouses, distribution centers, and manufacturing facilities.

1. Reduction of variable costs

Automated storage and retrieval systems reduce the variable cost of operations by reducing the need for manual labor for tasks such as picking, storing, assembly and inventory replenishment. These costs are variable, with expenses such as overtime, benefits and payroll taxes adding to the total cost of manual labor.

2. Automating manual, repetitive storage and retrieval costs

As mentioned, AS/RS solutions reduce the need for manual labor by automating manual, repetitive storage and retrieval tasks. Automating these tasks increases accuracy and efficiency while also freeing up human workers to focus on higher-value activities.

3. Better safety

Human workers who handle manual, repetitive tasks for several hours can experience fatigue and muscle strain, increasing the risk of errors and injury. Likewise, errors made when operating heavy equipment in a manufacturing or warehouse environment can be dangerous, resulting in injury or death.

By automating these tasks, AS/RS solutions eliminate mistakes that can hinder efficiency and safety while eliminating the fatigue and physical strain on human workers. AS/RS equipment can also move materials and loads that are too heavy for humans to carry, reducing workplace injuries resulting from lifting.

4. Better space utilization

Shelving and proper grouping of items are vital in warehouses and distribution centers. Raw materials, work-in-progress, and finished goods inventories need to be replenished regularly to keep processes moving without interruption. Warehouses and distribution centers alike depend on effective space utilization to maintain a healthy bottom line.

Most AS/RS solutions require narrower aisles compared to facilities that require enough aisle space for human workers and equipment such as forklifts to pass through, often with bi-directional traffic. Narrower aisles free up more storage space for goods and materials, allowing warehouses and DCs to store more items without expanding the facility. Facilities can also make better use of vertical space, as automated storage and retrieval systems can more easily reach higher storage locations than human workers.

Disadvantages of automated storage and retrieval systems Disadvantages of automated storage and retrieval systems

Despite their advantages, AS/RS solutions have a few important disadvantages companies should consider before making an investment decision.

1. Large initial investment

Installation and implementation of automated storage and retrieval systems is costly. The initial capital investment can be significant and installation requires substantial infrastructure changes. If a company is looking for a long-term solution, then the cost-benefit-analysis can show a positive ROI over the long term, but for companies in need of a faster return on their investment, AS/RS solutions may not be practical. For smaller companies, the large initial capital investment is often cost-prohibitive.

2. Repair and maintenance

While the one-time upfront investment can be viewed as an advantage, despite being substantial, there are some ongoing costs associated with AS/RS solutions. These systems require ongoing maintenance and periodic repairs. What’s more, repairing AS/RS equipment may require special expertise, meaning repairs may be more costly compared to the cost of making repairs on traditional warehouse equipment, such as forklifts or conveyor systems. So, while AS/RS solutions eliminate some costs associated with manual labor, the cost of maintenance and repairs shouldn’t be ignored.

Maintenance activities may require a partial or complete shutdown of operations, so companies implementing AS/RS solutions should consider the cost of downtime and production interruptions for equipment breakdowns. Companies that don’t have an on-staff maintenance technician experience longer downtimes while waiting for outside technicians to respond.

3. Not ideal for varied tasks

AS/RS equipment moves in pre-established routes and is best suited for regular, predictable and repetitive tasks. They’re not ideal for applications in which varying products are handled at different times, such as a warehouse that handles different products by season, due to the downtime required to re-program and re-train the AS/RS solution to move new products following each transition.

4. Lengthy onboarding

While they’re automated, performing storage and retrieval tasks with minimal human intervention, AS/RS solutions must be programmed to follow the necessary routes and retrieve and store the correct items in the right locations. Employees require training to operate the system effectively.

Collaborative mobile robots are a flexible, cost-effective alternative

Automated storage and retrieval systems aren’t the right choice for every business. Collaborative mobile robots are a flexible, more cost-effective alternative. They require no infrastructure changes, meaning a lower upfront cost. A human-centered alternative to AS/RS, collaborative robots leverage machine learning and AI to optimize routes in real-time and guide associates through each task, reducing unnecessary walking while boosting productivity and accuracy. And, collaborative mobile robots are intuitive to operate, and they work alongside the tools and systems you’re already using, such as your warehouse management system, for faster onboarding and rapid ROI.

Download our white paper, 7 Reasons Why Warehouse Robots Beat Traditional Automation, to learn more about why collaborative mobile robots are a better choice compared to traditional warehouse automation systems like AS/RS.