As warehouse efficiency, along with the streamlining of other processes, becomes a greater priority for retailers and logistics providers alike, the adoption of smart warehousing solutions is growing rapidly.
Warehouse automation isn’t new by any means, but a number of factors have escalated its adoption throughout the supply chain. Labor challenges over the last three years, for instance, have pinched the productivity and profitability of warehouses as the availability of labor remains low and wage rates continue to climb.
In short, automation technology is helping alleviate these challenges. However, you can’t just throw automation into the mix and expect results. Warehouses vary in size and complexity as well as pain points. The warehousing needs of a consumer packaged goods company are very different from one in e-commerce.
Because automation isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, it’s best to partner with those who know it best.
As experts in warehouse automation, Ryder works closely with warehousing operations to provide automation solutions that fit their profile.
Gary Allen, vice president of Supply Chain Excellence at Ryder, said the challenge is vetting what technology is ready now versus what’s to come to ensure that each client is provided only with solutions that are proven to solve their pain points and that have a good return on investment.
But piecing automation technology together — integrating a robotic picking arm with an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) or autonomous forklift on a traditional mechanized conveyor line — is easier said than done because automation isn’t just physical, it requires robust data integrations too.
So, designing automation with enough flexibility and scalability is crucial, because Allen said the last thing a dynamically changing company would want to do is invest millions of dollars in fixed warehouse automation — solutions that cannot easily be updated.
Thankfully, investing tens of millions of dollars is no longer a prerequisite to build a smart warehouse. In fact, companies of all sizes can invest in AMRs, sensors, automatic identification tools and other technologies at scale.
According to Allen, the industries ripe for automation are those with high stock-keeping unit (SKU) counts, such as retail and e-commerce, where operations can effectively implement AMRs and autonomous forklifts.
But Allen points out that today’s augmentation technologies such as sensors and wearables fit almost any profile.
“Even as you get into lower SKU counts and volumes, some of the newer tech around robotic pickers and AMRs is starting to fit the profile,” Allen said, explaining that AMRs are now capable of handling heavier pallets across CPG warehouses encompassing 1 million square feet.
This may come as a surprise to many companies that have been led to believe that automation requires significant capital investment, perhaps perpetuated by large-scale projects like Amazon’s “lights-out” fully automated warehouses that present a grandiose view of automation. But the truth is that automation today is more accessible, flexible and cheaper than ever before.
Ryder’s investments in automation have grown tremendously over the last five years, which Allen attributes largely to having the right people with the right knowledge.
“We have a dedicated team of automation specialists who are experts in automation,” Allen said. “They’re responsible for looking across Ryder’s industry verticals, whether it’s e-commerce, CPG or automotive, to understand not only the technology that is proven now but what’s to come in the future.”
Additionally, Ryder builds out its own modeling and simulation tools to ensure that each use case is profitable and meets the client’s productivity expectations.
Allen noted that around 15-20% of Ryder’s approximately 400 warehouses utilize some kind of automation technology, whereas typical companies, with the exception of those in e-commerce, automate just 10% of their warehouses.
“In a given year, we perform about 20 to 30 different deployments of automation across our network,” Allen said.
He expects automation technology to become more flexible and cheaper in the next three to five years. And with that, he added, “I think that customers are going to continue to expect more usage and application of automation going forward and that the ROI expectation will continue to decrease.
“We’re going to continue investing in automation not only by strategically partnering with key providers, it’s also by investing in our expertise, our facilities and by continuing to invest in research and development.”
Click for more FreightWaves content by Jack Glenn.