Automated response

27 July 2021

More and more SME warehouse operators and e-commerce retailers are deploying automated intralogistics technology to ensure that they meet delivery promises to online shoppers, says Paul Freeman

WITH DEVELOPMENTS in technology leading to the emergence of flexible and scalable products that deliver a notably faster return-on-investment than the type of often costly fixed assets that, at one time, were considered central to any automated warehouse project, more and more companies are choosing to automate part, or – in some cases – all, of their intralogistics processes.

Although automated storage and handling solutions were already high on the logistics industry’s agenda before COVID-19, there is little doubt that the increase in automated warehouse activity can, in part, be attributed to the social and economic fall-out from the pandemic.

Many smaller companies for whom automated solutions would, until relatively recently, have been financially out of reach, are now benefitting from the operational gains that today’s highly cost efficient automated systems offer and, as a consequence, the profile of the typical automation user is evolving.

Small and medium sized warehouse operators and e-commerce retailers faced with a need to reconfigure their operation to comply with new workplace social distancing rules or, perhaps, requiring a faster or more accurate order picking regime to ensure that they meet their next-day delivery promises, now see automated handling and storage technology as the optimum solution to their issues. 

Key factors

Several key factors are driving the growing market for automated handling solutions. Firstly, there is a shortage of skilled people to operate forklifts; secondly, the operational cost of automation is usually lower than manually-operated processes; and, thirdly, in this era of e-commerce there is a need for streamlined delivery, which forces logistics providers to plan and predict their logistics flows more consistently to achieve next-day or even same-day delivery.

Several key factors are driving the growing market for automated handling solutions

Furthermore, because automated guided vehicles follow the route around the warehouse that they have been programmed to follow – unlike most operator-controlled forklifts where the temptation to take a potentially dangerous ‘quick cut’ is, it seems, omnipresent among some drivers – the likelihood of an automated truck damaging either the warehouse building, the storage system within it or the load being carried is virtually zero. This built-in safety functionality also means that the risk of the equipment causing injury to warehouse personnel working in the same area as an automated machine is minimal.

And, it is often overlooked but, in terms of environmental-friendliness, an automated guided vehicle uses less energy and can be expected to have a longer working life than a manually-operated forklift.

But, despite its myriad benefits, automation is not the answer to everything. Every logistics flow, every warehouse set-up and every supply chain is different and what works for one business may not be appropriate for another. 

So, is automation suitable for your operation? As a starting point, consider the following questions in relation to your facility:

-  Are warehouse-driven delays a common issue?

-  Do everyday workflows include a vast amount of manual, repetitive tasks?

-  Is output directly affected by limitations within the workforce?

-  Are inventory counts regularly affected by inaccuracies?

Anyone that answers ‘yes’ to any of the above, simply has to have automated solution technologies on their radar.

Predictable pattern

Significantly, adopting automation no longer requires every aspect of the warehouse or distribution centre to be automated – just the parts of it that will benefit most from the technology – and automating those aspects of the warehousing operation that follow a predictable pattern makes a lot of sense. 

Toyota Material Handling has successfully delivered more than 250 automated projects featuring over 800 automated guided vehicles across Europe. We work with our customers to determine the specific challenges they face and tackle them one step at a time. Breaking the process down into small modules gives clients essential scalability and means that, if they wish to, customers can partially automate their processes while retaining the option to introduce more automated technology as future demands change.