Warehouse automation is a major topic of conversation today. Many in the industry are wary of its implications, however, particularly with regard to the issue of jobs. Yet the technology goes well beyond robots taking over tasks that were once done by humans.
Automation can be incorporated into almost every position in a warehouse, making jobs easier, more efficient and safer, without replacing humans. Embracing the right technologies can increase profits and make for happier employees.
The following warehouse jobs can be enhanced and optimized to maximize the potential of your operations.
Distribution Center Manager
Duties: Manages supply chain, inventory, shipping and receiving. Also leads daily activities, budgeting, long-term goals and hires and trains warehouse supervisors.
How automation can help: As the person who hires warehouse employees, a D.C. manager’s job is becoming more difficult due to low unemployment rates. Implementing automation in some areas of the process can help close the gap. In the process, D.C. managers can focus on safety and efficiency, rather than constantly scouting for new hires.
Because D.C. managers are also responsible for long-term goals, they’re concerned with keeping up with the demands of a growing e-commerce industry, which calls for same- or next-day delivery and huge amounts of inventory on hand. Warehouse automation can help a manager to better allocate human working hours to address more complex aspects of the order-fulfillment process, leaving robotics solutions to do the manual picking.
Inventory Control Manager
Duties: Oversees all inventory procedures and milestones, staff management, budgeting and entry-level workers.
How automation can help: Especially in today’s climate, D.C. and inventory-control managers need to be concerned with the scalability of their internal processes. How can the warehouse and its workers handle an ever-growing amount of work and inventory? Many manual tasks, such as inventory management or keeping tabs on inventory staff, is not reasonably scalable, with e-commerce projected to be 17% of all U.S. retail sales by 2022.
Adopting a scalable automation process for some manual tasks is well worth the time and effort. Not only will your business remain competitive, but the well-being and morale of your workforce will improve, as the retail and e-commerce industries continue to rapidly grow and change.
Duties: Manages the receipt, storage, inventory and dispatch of warehouse goods, as well as staff. Is also responsible for safety procedures, equipment maintenance and warehouse best practices.
How automation can help: Human error is inevitable, but warehouse managers are the ones who spend large portions of their days handling and correcting mistakes. Automation in the warehouse can help reduce human error in areas such as manual entry, and picking and packing of inventory.
Software applications that can interface directly with material-handling equipment provide an automation solution that can directly assist a warehouse manager. If the warehouse management system (WMS) can speak to and send instructions to automated material-handling equipment, it can aid in maximizing the goods-to-person ratio to avoid bottlenecks, prevent overwhelming human workers with tasks, and optimize shipping and packing output.
Duties: Moves freight and stock to and from the loading dock, delivery trucks, storage areas and production areas. Maintain stocks and moves materials to fulfill orders.
How automation can help: While it might seem that warehouse automation will completely replace material handlers, that isn’t necessarily true. Automated machines and processes can be added to the employee’s daily workflow to help prevent bottlenecks that result from manually collecting items from all around the warehouse. A materials handler could send one or more automated machines to collect heavy or large items throughout the warehouse, reducing the risk of injury or error by a human picker while speeding up process.
A warehouse can automate the labor-intensive consolidation process, which occurs after a human materials handler collects all of the items in a given batch. Automation technologies like articulated robotic arms can aid in reducing the bottlenecks that arise when manual packaging and shipping processes are slower than the picking process that comes before them.
Duties: Works on a variety of machinery in the warehouse. Must possess technical knowledge, physical stamina and knowledge of how to safely operate and maintain machines.
How automation can help: Many warehouse automation solutions rely on technology and robotics, but no warehouse wants to pay to keep a roboticist on staff. Automation gives machine operators an opportunity to develop new skills that add value to the operation. The manual act of repairing and maintaining machines is imperative to an automated warehouse, and is a perfect job for someone in this position. Moreover, automating processes around machine maintenance, tune-ups, rentals and purchases can save a machine operator time, and ensure that everyone using the machines is up to date on safety rules and certifications.
Duties: Processes customer orders and assembles appropriate materials. Assists with shipping and receiving, and maintaining an organized inventory tracking system. Also ensures that the warehouse floor remains organized and neat.
How automation can help: Automating order processing as well as sending out invoices and payment receipts can streamline the daily tasks a warehouse clerk is responsible for. An automated system to alert clerks about expiring products or orders that are past their shipment date can decrease the amount of product that needs to be disposed. It can also give the warehouse clerk a chance to alert the customer-service team about the need to contact a customer and update it on an order being shipped late.
Duties: Assists with all shipping, receiving and inventory organization. Picks inventory from shelves, loads and unloads goods, and tracks and labels inventory.
How automation can help: The average warehouse worker spends about 75 percent of their day completing tasks related to order picking. Long-range barcode labels can help pickers by acting as a checklist for orders being assembled. Automating the picking process, by scanning items as they’re picked off shelves, can prevent missed or incorrect items in an order. It can also help to keep a more accurate record of inventory levels. Using automatic machinery such as carousels, vertical lifts or conveyor belts to reduce warehouse employee movement throughout the warehouse saves time and energy, and can reduce risk of injury.
While the prospect of automating processes in the warehouse might seem like a no-brainer, cost and return on investment should always be considered before taking the plunge. Always keep in mind that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” automation solution for every warehouse or industry.
With the right research, implementation, planning and training, automation can work for you and your team, creating a safer, productive and more efficient warehouse environment.
Evan Hammersley is a U.S. Army veteran and Automation and Robotics Product Manager at Nitco.