Perhaps one of the best features of the new generation of warehouse automation is its ability to adapt to changing environments, explains Hartman. “Flexibility around information processing is one example, and that’s having the ability to alter, change, or override the decision rules that are built into the software and control systems to accommodate changing requirements in the marketplace.”
Another example includes “path flexibility,” which Hartman describes as “the ability to take anything, anywhere in your system and put it anywhere else, as opposed to being constrained by a very specific path.”
Although much of the previously installed warehouse automation systems didn’t offer these types of flexibility, “Quite often that existing technology can be upgraded for a reasonable cost,” he adds.
For its part, Dematic has rolled out several solutions designed to address the challenges of today’s marketplace. One is “a buffering system to decouple the inventory pulling activity from the shipping activity,” explains Kotecki.
“For example, let’s say you’re shipping a tremendous amount of SKUs to regional liquor stores. [The goal] is to make sure that when the truck pulls up to the liquor store that there’s a pallet, six cases, a bunch of loose items, and maybe some totes, all in precisely the order that the person in the truck needs them, and that the order is complete and the truck did not spend a lot of time at the dock door at the distribution center. So, I’m going to accumulate that order at the case or tote level in a buffer, called a Multishuttle. It’s a multi-access, high density storage machine for cases and totes that can accumulate an order, not necessarily together physically, but in the system. Then, we electronically ‘push a button’ and out comes everything in exactly the proper sequence for that order, it goes to the dock door exactly when you need it, totally complete, and goes on the truck in reverse order of the deliveries.”
Kotecki says there is also more interest in solutions targeting three common issues—slow moving inventory, automated pallet storage, and removing labor from the distribution center.
“Many people are starting to look at their warehouse and say, ‘Okay, I’m automated, I’ve got all the high speed stuff, but I’ve still got three quarters of my warehouse dedicated to pallets and pallets of sardine-flavored Jello that no one is ever going to use.’”
Dematic’s answer is RapidStore, a modular automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) for unit loads like pallets. “You can stuff this thing with all of your slow moving inventory and the machine is super fast, it rotates the SKU at the pick-face, which is at floor level, so if the worker is on a pallet jack, he takes one lap around the ASRS and the system is constantly presenting the slow moving stuff needed to fulfill the order.”
And, while it’s admittedly “not sexy,” says Kotecki, “there is a tremendous desire to automate pallet storage. We’re going in to existing facilities that are already pallet racked and rather using a whole bunch of people on fork trucks, we use automated guided vehicles (AGVs), map the system in three-dimensions electronically, then the AGVs perform the task of storage and retrieval in that warehouse.”
Removing labor from the distribution center is another ongoing quest. Dematic’s LaserTrucks+ is a seamlessly integrated, voice-directed and driverless laser guided pallet truck that increases case picking productivity by eliminating non-productive steps.
“The amount of walking is cut down, productivity goes up (by about 20 to 40 percent), and workers aren’t deadheading back and forth to the dock,” explains Kotecki.
So, how much does it cost?
Not only is warehouse automation more robust, it’s decidedly more affordable today. And, while larger companies are making sizeable investments, there’s plenty of activity in the mid-level market too, according to Intelligrated’s Cronin, “because they also realize that they need to respond to the various issues in the marketplace.”
Cronin says that medium-sized companies are “looking to phase-in the automation so that it’s more of a realistic and economic reach for them.” Typically, that may include starting with conveyor and sortation equipment, he explains.