PARCEL January/February 2024

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Do You Really Need Those Toys? Maximize Productivity Before Embracing Automation By Stephen (Steve) T. Hopper, PE


y historical standards, the recent surge in both the volume and variety of industrial automation solutions is unprecedented, and it continues to accelerate. Nowhere is this more evident than in the warehousing and fulfillment industry, where technology companies introduce creative automation solutions at a rapid pace. The proliferation of automation solutions for warehousing and fulfillment operations in recent years is hard to ignore. Options such as automated guided vehicles (AGVs), collaborative robots (“cobots”), and various autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and sorting systems have become integral to the industry’s landscape. This surge in automation is driven, in part, by the challenges posed by a shrinking workforce, as well as the push for improved productivity and reduced labor costs. Living in an age dominated by automation, our collective desire for a society where it is ubiquitous is understandable. Automation appeals to our imaginations, fueled by science-fiction classics like Star Wars, Star Trek, Transformers, and The Jetsons. It’s the future — sexy, glamorous, and where the “cool kids” are. Industry events like


ProMat and MODEX showcase an array of exciting automation solutions, prompting media outlets to consistently advocate for automation adoption with the prevailing mantra, “Automate, or evaporate!” The industry is navigating a perfect storm, with an aging and diminishing workforce exacerbated by events like “The Great Resignation” that was triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. This shortage of qualified labor intensifies the pressure on businesses to identify automation as a solution. However, is automation itself the goal, or is it a means to achieve broader objectives? While the allure of automation is undeniable, businesses must recognize that automation is merely a tool — a means to achieve goals such as improved productivity and reduced labor costs. The real question is whether businesses should prioritize automation as the initial step toward these goals. Or would it be wiser to embark on the journey by enhancing the productivity of existing labor resources, using the current facility, equipment, and information systems? In other words, do businesses really need those high-tech toys? The good news is that remarkable progress toward productivity and cost

reduction goals can often be achieved through less expensive and less risky measures than automation. Phased and effective productivity improvement initiatives, without new automation, can yield substantial benefits. Level 1  Examine the methods your workers use to perform repetitive tasks in your operation, and reengineer them to improve their efficiency.  Reengineer your workstations based on Lean principles and ergonomic standards to minimize the motion and movement required to complete repetitive tasks, and select safe and effective tools for workers to use for every task.  At the start of each shift, conduct a brief team huddle to set daily goals, identify issues, highlight achievements, and answer any questions the workers have.  Develop effective training materials, and use them to train workers to follow the right methods and use tools safely and effectively. Typical productivity improvement: 5% to 15%

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