What beverage distributors should consider before automating a warehouse
Defined tasks crucial for automation evaluations
A facility that contains packaged product, equipment and people has been called many things; however, that big “barn” generally is referred to as a warehouse. These facilities also will vary in size, layout and capabilities.
Today, most packaged products have handling tasks, such as merchandise input to output. In this warehousing cycle, many studies in recent years have revealed potential operating improvements for required work, such as product handling and storing, distribution preparation, as well as related cost controls and eliminations. The results, in real time, can present a realistic challenge to beverage producers, distributors and builders: What economical and technologically advanced operational improvements (paperless and automated) can be made and cost justified?
DEFINING THE SITUATION
During observations, analysis, operation and construction of various warehouse types, several basic issues always seem to surface:
- Paperwork processing or elimination (both quantity and complexity), which is time consuming, error prone and problematic.
- Manual task reduction or simplification (involving equipment operation or attention), which also is time, error and service oriented.
- Physical operating conditions (size, space and capability) that can thwart efforts to make necessary improvements.
These issues have raised important questions, such as: Can paperwork effectively be modified or completely eliminated such as through a warehouse management system (WMS)?; can manual handling tasks be automated through automated storage and retrieval systems or automated guided vehicles?; and can an existing facility configuration be adapted to proposed changes?
Some current programs might address these issues when considering warehouse operation automation that could include different or similar approaches; however, in any scenario, it is absolutely necessary to determine specific essential tasks, required paper flow and physical facility restrictions to consider automation potential.
When looking at some required tasks, forklift truck operators transport palletized product to storage areas where pallets are stacked atop each other or placed in racking installations. This is the basic warehouse storing function. After storage, pallets of product are transported to the staging area according to a manually prepared picking or sorting order prior to route vehicle loading. Full or partial pallets are loaded via forklift trucks and, in some instances, cases can be manually loaded on the vehicle. Product load verification is done manually by the drivers who check actual loads versus load orders. Route delivery vehicles now are ready for check out and distribution to the market. The bulk of these manual tasks are pre-distribution operations.
Although task definitions are necessary, they often are overlooked. From global observations, jobs, functions or duties might be given different names, but basic tasks still remain: transport to products’ storage, retrieve them from storage or move them to the staging area, stage the order for loading, and load the vehicle. If this is what you do in your warehousing operations, can you economically and practically automate?
Operations managers next should determine how warehousing operations currently are being performed and by whom. It has often been the situation where there is no documentation of how operations are performed or by whom on a regular basis. This is an essential step to properly assess current conditions and establish required tasks throughout the work cycle. Once current conditions are known, a comprehensive time and methods evaluation will help establish the need for improvement or elimination and cost justification for any proposed system.
With a task definition and time/method approach to both manual and machine operations, the paperwork aspect also is involved and needs similar evaluation for simplification, conversion or elimination. Current WMSs have somewhat addressed the issue, but this solution often is not in synch with actual task assignments. Unless compatibility exists between tasks and paperwork, any warehouse automation effort can be ineffective.
Even though many software and mechanical systems have been developed to address issues related to automation projects, issues remain that pose challenges when designing a fully automated facility. Is this practical? Therefore, a completely automated warehouse might not be possible until vehicle loading systems have been designed.
Automated facilities, under varying conditions, have been viewed and evaluated for expected and actual results. Progress has been made toward the automated goal; however, in some instances, basic and fundamental steps have either been overlooked or not considered because the functional tasks have not been sufficiently detailed to properly address what can or cannot be automated or, in the case of paperwork, even eliminated or converted to digital.