The warehouse per se is a physical structure intended to store merchandise ― academic and taken for granted; however, categorizing the warehouse can help understand how internal functions and operations play important roles when contemplating automation. From an operations perspective, warehouse automation can eliminate labor, control pre-distribution functions, reduce capital expense and improve distribution productivity. Let’s take a look.

CATEGORIES: In the beverage arena, there are two basic ones —production/distribution and distribution center— that serve as realistic labels to use in analyzing warehouse operations/functions. In either case, the input/output cycle is relatively the same with different starting and ending points for merchandise handling. In both categories the functional purpose of storing can involve short, long term or transient periods.  

CRITERIA: After defining the category type and operations, criteria for automation potential should be developed, analyzed and evaluated to establish feasibility. Volume, package mix, inventory turnover rate, market demographics and required storing methods were issues used as part of the criteria for an automated beverage warehouse observed 30 years ago. Such significant issues and required warehouse operations should be capable of automation.

APPROACH: What can be automated? In scenario A, production/distribution warehouse configurations place automation starting points at the end of production lines. Various systems have been tried and are available, which could include programmed order picking, but automated guided vehicles is one method frequently being used ― taking palletized merchandise to storage entry input stations en route to programmed racked cubicles for timed storage (automated storage). The ending point starts with programmed selection (automated removal) from cubicles to a storage exit output station en route to staging areas. 

Based on warehouse computerized order picking programs, staging areas might handle full or partial pallet makeup for distribution loading, which essentially ends the pre-distribution function. At this point, the traditional vehicle loading operation has been and continues to be manual and conversion to automation is in process but has not been fully developed as indicated by those involved in overcoming the complex variables that must be reconciled.

The approach to scenario B — standalone distribution or sales center type warehouses — places the starting point at receiving docks where palletized merchandise is manually unloaded, usually by forklift truck, and moved to warehouse storage. A consideration to automating the unloading operation has been investigated but only applicable for receiving packaging materials.

In most scenario B-type structures, unless financially justified by volume, package mix and rate of turnover, automation with computerized order picking and programmed racking, might not be practical or economically feasible. If justifiable, the automation starting point would be located at storage input stations moving pallet loads to programmed cubicles, stored, then retrieved and staged at storage exit stations in preparation for vehicle loading ― the end point of automated storage. 

Scenario B-type warehouses are confronted with the same manual operations (vehicle loading) as scenario A, but will usually experience more throughput volume and turnover rate. Therefore, the automation issue can be a vital decision depending upon marketing conditions and geographic area along with the suggested criteria. 

The bottom line on automating a warehouse, projecting forward, will mean it is possible if justified under the dynamic operating and marketing conditions historically experienced in the beverage arena and technological advancement progress that might exist.