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Automation in warehousing is all the rage today — but how does a facility even begin to approach the topic? Richard Kooistra, vice president of automation with Twinlode Automation, offers some practical advice on implementation.
SCB: What are some practical ways that automation can be implemented today?
Kooistra: From a practicality standpoint, you need to have an overall objective and plan for your business. Then you take a staged approach, where you do implementation in maybe two, three, or four steps in order to get to your overall goal.
SCB: “Automation” is such a broad term, especially when it refers to warehouses. How do we even start to get our arms around the issue — prioritize what type of automation is necessary, and which direction to go in?
Kooistra: That’s the fundamental question that the majority of our customers are asking right now. I like to do material-flow diagrams and talk to customers about tracing product through the business, then using data to develop a plan for where they want to go. Another big thing is which industry segment is the customer in. It's going to be a big driver as well, with regards to looking at automation.
SCB: You have to drill down to what you really need and what you don't need too, right?
Kooistra: Sure. Another thing to consider is the culture or mindset of the customers. Are they in an industry segment that embraces technology from ownership, all the way down to people working in supply chain and logistics? Or are they in one where they might say, "You know what? I don't really embrace it all that much, but we've got to do it.” That’s when we use education, site visits, and YouTube, showing them examples of how you can practically put automation into your business, and how it can work for you.
SCB: What is top management demanding these days in terms of ROI? How much time do you have before you have to prove out the effectiveness of a system?
Kooistra: That has changed over the years, absolutely. They're now demanding it has to be less than three years. I did an ROI calculation with one client that showed a 2.87-years return on a $30 million-dollar project. We went through my algorithm and calculations and actually got it down to less than a year. But it's such a big step for them that they’re not going to bite off the entire piece all at once. They're probably going to do it in three or four stages.
SCB: I would think that management today would be highly incentivized to adopt automation, especially in the age of Amazon.
Kooistra: There are many factors to consider, and companies have to be very serious about it, especially because of the competitive nature of business today. They’re also dealing with a scarcity of labor in the warehouse.
SCB: How much automation technology out there today is off-the-shelf and generic, as opposed to what must be customized to the needs of each individual user?
Kooistra: I firmly believe that every client is different in some way with regards to how they operate their business, and 100 percent of the applications need to be customized. We ask, How flexible and scalable can the solution be? Say there’s a client with 15 sites across America. Doing the first one is always going to involve the most difficulties, to make sure that you get the solution down pat. But after you've done it once, to replicate it at the other 14 sites is going to be a lot easier.
SCB: What’s the most interesting and exciting innovation that you see coming down the pike in the next year and beyond?
Kooistra: I get excited looking at automated guided vehicles and robots, and what that’s going to do to sortation and conveyance. The flexibility of robots and AGVs, where you don't have the rigidity of sortation and conveyance — that, to me, is the future.
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