Looking to Automate your DC? Here’s Where to Start

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Looking to Automate your DC? Here’s Where to Start

John O'Kelly, the founder and president of Newcastle Systems, outlines how to get started with warehouse automation — and how it can help your business prosper.
Smart warehouse management system.Worker hands holding tablet on blurred warehouse as background

If the past year has taught supply chain professionals anything, it’s adaptability. Unprecedented demand and industry acceleration sparked by the global pandemic has only exacerbated customer expectations in an already tight labor market. As the industry reflects on the challenges of 2020 and what lies ahead, another word has come to the forefront: automation.

According to a recent report, worldwide spending on warehouse automation technology has already topped $2 billion and is expected to reach a whopping $22.4 billion in market value by the close of 2021. Ranging in everything from warehouse management systems to robots, automation technologies — and the cost and time needed to implement them — can be daunting. If you’re thinking about automation in 2021 and beyond, here are some tips to get started.

Look Before you Leap

Before committing to the investment of new software, equipment, and training, take some time to assess the gaps, pain points and areas of opportunity within your current workflow. First, take some time to document your processes. Software and equipment work best when they are designed to enable an existing process and improve it. The key to doing that is to have an excellent grasp of what your existing processes are (Hint: Most manual-driven facilities DON’T). Then document, map and validate the process you want to automate and you will be a better client to whomever you are briefing to help you.

Once you have an idea of where you’d like to automate, get some expertise to help with the how.

If you are a small or medium-sized DC, you are less likely to have an in-house resource with the expertise to conduct the process analytics and implementation. Bringing in an outside resource – a consultant who knows the automation space and has successfully helped other DCs, would be a good place to invest first.

Start Small

It doesn’t always take a sizable investment or interruption to your infrastructure to incorporate automation into your warehouse and workflows. There are plenty of options that require a minimal lift while yielding a quick and powerful ROI.

Voice-directed warehousing (VDW), also known as “speech-based picking” and “pick by voice,” is an easy-to-implement system that leverages Wi-Fi and/or radio frequency identification to communicate verbal directives between your infrastructure and warehouse operators.

Easily integrated with existing warehouse management systems, VDW provides audible direction to operators, pointing them to specific locations and picking tasks. Operators can provide feedback verbally, or with the help of a scanning device, typically a barcode scanner. This streamlined workflow reduces errors, distraction and wasted motion, increasing productivity up to 35% and accuracy up to 85%!

Mobility is another great place to start. The average warehouse worker walks about 3.9 miles a day. How many of those steps are really necessary? Think about it: steps from the loading dock to the computer to log products, or from the shelves to the printers to pick up labels can quickly add up and slow operations down. Integrating all-in-one mobile workstations that hold technology you already have on hand such as laptops, printers, scanners and more, allow employees to move seamlessly through the warehouse with everything they need. This easy to implement automation can increase overall worker productivity by up to 50%, which equates to 5-10+ hours gained per worker weekly.

The Time is Now

Over the next 5-10 years, the supply chain is going to see more automation with advanced capabilities and an increased reliance on robotics. Even if you aren’t ready to go all-in just yet, now is the perfect time to get started with some initial assessment, planning and investment.

John O’Kelly is the founder and president of Newcastle Systems, an innovator of ergonomic, powered industrial carts. For more information, visit www.newcastlesys.com.

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