BY NORM SAENZ, JR.
AUTOMATION – TIMING IS EVERYTHING
t seems everyone is interested in considering automation, and there are plenty of enticing reasons. Distribution and fulfillment center managers are dealing with a tightening labor pool, rising labor wages, and increasing market competition. These issues have placed an even larger emphasis on improving the productivity and throughput of labor-intensive operations. And, with lengthening lead times and escalating capital costs, the pressure is intensifying to start your automation journey. With decades of automation development and recent innovations, the industry is exploding with alternatives. This expanding interest in automation is driving some companies to lower their minimum rate of return and increase capital budgets. With longer equipment lead times and other supply chain risks, management is also expecting investments to last longer than typical planning horizons. As a result, there is increased importance on the design process, including the use of quality data, accurate growth projections, and detailed evaluation of automated solutions. The good news is, there are many automation/technology alternatives to retrofit an existing building and/or use in a new building. Planning Comes First Before getting enamored with reviewing technology, it is critical to develop planning requirements. And, while some are pushing hurdle rates lower, it is still important to understand the return on investment. The automation journey begins with collecting data and future operational business changes and projections, including item dimensions and weight, units of measures (each, case, pallet), inventory levels, and inbound/outbound volumes. With a future state data model complete, the focus shifts to identifying the functional areas to evaluate for automation. The use for automation exists throughout a facility, including receiving, storage, order processing, packaging, and shipping. The question is, where does automation make the biggest impact on the operation to reach your objectives?
30 PARCELindustry.com MAY-JUNE 2022
The receiving area is overcome with manual labor, including operators unloading trailers, checking in receipts, and sorting items onto pallets. The use of conveyor technologies is a typical option for unloading and sorting parcel/ less-than-truckload trailers. Robotics is making a push into unloading floor-loaded trailers and has the technology to grab cases from a trailer and place them onto pallets and/ or load conveyor. For unloading full pallet trailers, there are automated truck unloading systems that move an entire trailer load onto the dock with a press of a button. However, enabling this technology typically means the received trailer is equipped with special equipment. The auto loading/ unloading of trailers is more common for manufacturers, where entire trailers are loaded at the plants and unloaded at their distribution centers. The other option for automating the unloading pallets is using autonomous forklifts or fork-equipped AGVs (automated guided vehicles). These same solutions are applicable for the shipping dock, while it is more common for case/tote conveyors and sorters to be used for loading directly into trailers. The warehouse storage footprint is the largest area within a distribution center. As a result, transporting pallet loads throughout the warehouse consumes a high amount of labor and is one of the simplest to automate. Within an average facility size (250,000 sq. ft.) a material handler can travel thousands of feet per day moving pallets to/from the dock. These material handling functions typically require operator-driven forklifts within a facility. The use of unit-load AGVs, autonomous mobile robotics (AMRs), and autonomous forklifts eliminates these labor requirements. Another benefit with AGVs/AMRs is they can be installed in a modular way to manage volume growth and capital spend. The labor required within a manual warehouse can also be eliminated with the use of automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS). Unit-load (pallet) AS/RS systems have been in use since the early 1900s and are typically designed more