Today we have rovers mining Mars, robots assisting heart surgery and AI writing poetry. But can and will automation technology be there for you when you really need it during a spike of online purchases or a period of order volatility?
Chad Thibodeaux, who works in global account management at BEUMER Group, a world leader in intralogistics technology, says the answer is yes – but only when shippers have exercised foresight and invested in automation that can flex to their needs.
The following is a recap of Thibodeaux’s tips and insights for eTailers considering automation, which he shared during a recent episode of the Unboxing Fulfillment podcast. Thibodeaux brings a drones-eye view of fulfillment operations from his experience consulting at every level of automation—or lack thereof.
Listen to the podcast here or read the round-up below.
Six Tips for Building Automation Made to Flex
1 - Start with Data
Thibodeaux is surprised by how many companies fail to make sure the automated systems they invest in will accommodate their anticipated growth. That growth could be in the sheer volume an automated system will handle, in a growing range of package sizes sent, or in an increase in the number of eaches per order.
An automated solution is only as good as the data the system is designed around. Put the time into gathering the information you need. Understand your SKU profiles and what your mix looks like. If you are designing the system for a future automation and this is a phased approach, consider these inputs so you can design in flexibility.
2 - Consult all Stakeholders
One of the biggest mistakes Thibodeaux says he sees purchasers of automated systems make is not consulting the people who will determine the ultimate success of the solution—namely operations and engineering.
“My experience has been the more input we get from those disciplines and the more engagement we get from all the different disciplines and parts of the company; the more successful the projects usually end up.”
That includes operations, maintenance, management and corporate. In addition to satisfying corporate’s targets and goals, it’s important to make sure the system is maintainable for engineers and easy for operations people to run.
3 - Question Assumptions—and Create Contingencies
Every system is going to be based on assumptions that affect the design of the system. Thibodeaux says it is important to evaluate those assumptions deeply in case they are wrong. He suggests working through worst-case scenarios and being prepared.
For example, a small company that doesn’t have product distribution data might make an assumption based on averages about their package stream and the percentage of packages within each dimensional segment. If that company is in merger-mode and suddenly has to combine another company’s package stream into their own, traffic will bottleneck.
4 - Build in Settings to Increase Automation Throughput
Systems can be designed with additional capacity already built into them. BEUMER Group often implements systems that have two different throughputs or speeds. “Because when you're at your traditional volume levels and you can handle it at a certain level, you don't want to speed up the system and run it down,” Thibodeaux explains. “Then when you get your peaks, you ramp up and the automation turns up a notch.”
5 - SMBs Should Go with the Tried and True
Because automation investments can be expensive, they’re especially risky for smaller companies. A lot of smaller organizations don't have millions to invest in automation. Thibodeaux says it makes sense for them to lean on a technology that's tried and true. “You need to find something that you're not experimenting with and there are already instances of it being used successfully.”
This is especially true for companies that have never used automation before. A challenging technology or design coupled with the complexities of a first-time automation implementation is a recipe for disaster, he says.
6 - Consider Leaving Automation Technology to a 3PL
One way businesses can insulate themselves from the effects of labor shortages is by outsourcing fulfillment to a 3PL. The right 3PL will have already invested in productivity-enhancing technology, allowing you to avoid capital investments and at the same time gain an efficiency edge over competitors.
3PL fulfillment providers tailor automation technology to customers’ needs based on experience serving many different companies. They’re used to maintaining and staffing automated systems. Some, like Amware Fulfillment, can allocate the cost of warehouse robotics and other technology across multiple customers in a “automation as a service” approach.
Today’s labor shortage is not going away anytime soon – if ever. High employment and turnover rates aside, Thibodeaux sees an even bigger picture problem. “What person wants to empty and load boxes all day?
The job of fulfillment associate is a hard one to fill and the more that can be done through automation to make the job easier will result in happier associates that stay.
For more insights into improving operations in the B2C warehouse, check out all episodes of the Unboxing Fulfillment podcast.