How warehouse automation works

What is warehouse automation?

Carolina Monroy Last Updated: October 28th, 2019

Technology is making many warehouse processes more efficient by augmenting the work of humans or, in some cases, automating tedious, manual tasks, freeing up associates to focus on more complex tasks. Warehouse automation takes many forms, including machines and robots that aid workers with processes related to inventory from when it arrives at the warehouse until it leaves. Leveraging warehouse automation solutions can help warehouses increase productivity and accuracy, reduce labor costs and improve safety.

That doesn’t mean robots are taking over or stealing jobs from human workers. Rather, companies are taking advantage of the accuracy of machines, as well as their ability to work continuously for long hours without fatigue, to make warehouse tasks safer and more efficient. Some warehouse automation setups cover everything from unloading trailers to fulfilling orders, but humans are still part of the scene. Let’s take a look at the various types of warehouse automation, how warehouse automation works and the primary benefits warehouses gain by implementing automation technology.

Types of warehouse automation Types of warehouse automation - Chuck by 6 River Systems collaborative mobile robot

Many technologies that assist human workers or handle tasks from end-to-end fall under the umbrella of warehouse automation. Warehouses are complex operations, managing a variety of processes and tasks to manage inventory and distribute goods.

Warehouse automation solutions are equally varied, consisting of several types of technologies designed to speed up warehouse processes:

Goods-to-person technologies (GTP)

GTP solutions usually involve robots or machines that bring materials to workers for assembly or packing. It may use cranes or vehicles that travel around the warehouse picking up materials. GTP includes automated storage and retrieval solutions and conveyor systems.

  • Automated storage and retrieval systems: Automated storage and retrieval solutions (AS/RS) make up the bulk of what most people imagine when they think about warehouse automation. AS/RS is a form of GTP technology, using vehicles, cranes and carousels to move items throughout the warehouse and store items in warehouse storage locations.
  • Conveyor systems: Conveyor systems are one of the oldest warehouse automation technologies. Conveyors move materials around or along assembly lines to move inventory to work areas such as packaging and shipping areas or to sorting areas. Conveyor systems are also a type of GTP technology.

Pick-to-light systems

Pick-to-light systems use barcodes and LED lights to help workers locate the correct items to fulfill orders. Pick-to-light systems augment the work of humans, reducing walking and improving productivity by helping pickers locate items faster.

Voice picking and voice tasking

Voice picking or voice tasking solutions add communication technology to a warehouse order picker’s routine. Pickers and taskers communicate, usually through wireless headsets, to coordinate movement and picking tasks.

Sortation systems

Sortation systems direct items to the right locations or to the correct bins by using various technologies that identify and separate items, directing them to specific locations for returns processing, to picking zones or to packing stations.

Collaborative mobile robots

Collaborative mobile robots work alongside humans to enhance picking accuracy and productivity, guiding associates through the picking process. Some collaborative mobile robots, like 6 River Systems’ Chuck, optimize picking routes and tasks based on the warehouse status and work priorities. Collaborative mobile robots offer numerous benefits, including flexibility, reliability, scalability, reduced walking time and increased productivity.

Drones

While drones are technically robots, most lack advanced onboard computers. Drones are used for inventory management, equipped with barcode scanners to conduct inventory counts and alert warehouse staff to products needing restocking or items located in the wrong storage locations. Some companies are exploring the use of drones for deliveries, as well.

How warehouse automation works

How warehouse automation works

Automation in any scenario provides a means for completing repetitive, tedious tasks with less human labor. If you need to put 1,000 pairs of the same shoes into boxes, doing it by hand will get old quickly. Leveraging automation technology to complete the task saves humans from hours of boring work while freeing them up to dedicate their time to more complex tasks. Any task that requires repetitive work can benefit from automation.

That said, modern technology, like drones and machine learning, paves the way for warehouse automation solutions to complete multiple tasks and perform more complex, non-repetitive work. A few decades ago, automation meant a conveyor belt or a machine in a fixed location doing the same thing over and over. Solution designs required engineers to anticipate their highest-volume needs in their implementation, rendering much of the automation efforts too expensive if actual volume failed to meet their expectations. Modern warehouse automation solutions, on the other hand, often employ robots and cranes that can perform a wide range of both simple and complex tasks and can be deployed relative to the needs of the operation. Some automation solutions like collaborative mobile robots leverage AI and machine learning to optimize tasks in real-time based on warehouse conditions and work priorities.

Benefits of warehouse automation

The benefits of warehouse automation are multifold. Modern warehouse automation technologies are more flexible and scalable compared to older automation solutions like conveyors, which are bulky and fixed in place. Warehouse operators can rent additional robots to accommodate increased demand during peak season, returning them when demand returns to normal. Collaborative mobile robots also don’t require infrastructure changes, unlike conveyor systems, so they’re easier to implement. Other benefits of warehouse automation include:

  • Increased productivity
  • Less worker strain and fatigue
  • Improved worker satisfaction
  • Fewer injuries
  • Lower operating costs
  • Increased accuracy
  • Fewer shipping mistakes

Space optimization is another benefit of warehouse automation, allowing warehouses to maximize the use of vertical space by storing items in higher locations that are typically difficult for humans or forklifts to reach. Drones, cranes and some AS/RS solutions make it easier to access these higher storage locations, so warehouses can monetize more cubic feet.

Investing in the right warehouse automation solutions is a smart financial decision, saving warehouse money from reduced errors, fewer injuries and increased productivity. Flexible warehouse automation solutions like 6 River Systems are cost-effective and offer easy onboarding and faster ROI compared to older, outdated automation technologies.

Learn more about the benefits of 6 River Systems’ automation solution by downloading our white paper, 7 Reasons Why Warehouse Robots Beat Traditional Automation.