The flood gates are alleged to be opening up on warehouse automation proper now. The pondering is that with the surge in e-commerce skilled throughout the pandemic, and the struggles of discovering sufficient accessible labor power, DC operations might want to step up automation investments.
That surge in automation might quickly begin occurring, however provide chain practitioners who accomplished a current survey for us instructed a barely completely different story. Briefly, we discovered that the majority have respectable budgets for additional automation, however as of September when the survey was performed, 2020 has targeted on scrambling to regulate issues like layouts and stock ranges, whereas additionally taking steps to maintain employees protected.
I’m speaking about our annual Warehouse Operations and Tendencies survey, which Peerless Analysis Group conducts, and whose findings seem in each Trendy Supplies Dealing with and Logistics Administration magazines. You will discover the 2020 story here.
For a number of years now, I’ve had the privilege of summarizing key traits from this survey, which asks individuals questions concerning the nature and measurement of their DC networks, e-commerce exercise, and operational challenges like with the ability to discover sufficient employees. This yr, we added some questions on dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, similar to use of protecting gear and implementation of social distancing in amenities.
The reassuring discovering is that the overwhelming majority of respondents are taking steps for employee well being and security throughout the pandemic: 94% report protecting masks are used inside their operations, and the identical proportion say gear is frequently sanitized. Apparently, 87% plan on persevering with a minimum of a few of these practices even after the pandemic subsides.
The survey discovered that respondents’ budgets stay pretty wholesome. Nonetheless, it’s not like most of them rushed into rolling out new applied sciences like cell robots this yr. Our survey discovered solely 6% at present use cell robots or automated guided autos, far lower than the practically 90% who use elevate vehicles at their amenities, or the 85% now utilizing a warehouse administration system (WMS) of some sort.
Indicators counsel these respondents can be deploying extra automation. The common projected capex price range is on the upswing, and already in 2020, 25% mentioned they added extra automation. Loads of respondents additionally report that they’ve skilled considerably extra e-commerce work for the reason that pandemic started. For 10% of respondents, e-commerce exercise elevated by 60% or extra, and a mixed 24% skilled e-commerce progress of greater than 30%, however below 59%.
A technique of this discovering is that many respondents noticed an e-commerce surge, however have but to enact a surge in use of extra automation. That’s comprehensible. It takes time to determine which automation applied sciences to begin including, and initiatives require human assets at a time when firms are scrambling to get items out the door. It solely is sensible to first modify current programs or layouts earlier than placing in additional automation.
When requested about actions taken since March to regulate operations, the survey discovered that many of those are enterprise course of changes or in any other case low-tech tweaks. The three main actions taken since March to regulate operations had been to enhance warehouse processes, change layouts or re-arrange workstations, and enhance wages.
Elevated use of automation will come. The necessity is there, as a result of e-commerce exercise has ballooned, and lots of operations can’t discover sufficient employees (this once more was ranked as the highest difficulty/problem for operations). With e-commerce achievement requiring extra labor if accomplished with guide processes, and labor being exhausting to search out, the established order of sticking with guide processes gained’t minimize it for lengthy.
The brand new breed of automation similar to cell robots are already getting used and can probably be used at a rising charge, however on this yr of disruption, most DCs needed to scramble to vary issues like how far aside individuals ought to stand when punching in at time clocks, or what number of could be within the break room or lunch room directly, or including plexiglass dividers between intently spaced work areas like packout stations.
In early a part of 2021, we’ll do a unique annual survey venture that’s extra targeted on readers’ gear and automation funding outlook. It is going to be fascinating to see if this “automation” survey (catch it in Trendy’s February 2021 difficulty) reveals if there may be an automation surge taking form to assist counteract the e-commerce surge many operations have been coping with for the reason that pandemic hit.
For an in depth dialogue of how superior automation is evolving and may also help warehouse operations over the long run, a great useful resource is MHI’s “Transformation Age” paper, half MHI’s Roadmap Collection. One caveat to all of the anticipation: It takes time to see broad scale trade adoption of applied sciences. For instance, take into account the sluggish however regular adoption of radio-frequency (RF) assisted selecting, a know-how that has been round for many years. In our 2020 operations survey, solely 46% of respondents mentioned they used paper-based selecting, the bottom up to now 4 years, whereas selecting with the assistance of RF-enabled gadgets related to WMS or different software program topped greater than 60% for the primary time. Adoption of know-how will come, however it will possibly take time to grow to be mainstream.
Concerning the Writer
Roberto Michel, senior editor for Trendy, has coated manufacturing and provide chain administration traits since 1996, primarily as a former employees editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Enterprise Know-how. He has been a contributor to Trendy since 2004. He has labored on quite a few present dailies, together with at ProMat, the North American Materials Dealing with Logistics present, and Nationwide Manufacturing Week. You may attain him at: [email protected]