How can warehouse automation streamline your operations?

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published 22 April 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

As businesses grow and scale, the efficient operations of their warehouse facilities become increasingly important, with a growing reliance on automation systems. Automation technologies can transform a warehouse's operations, increasing productivity, lowering running costs and improving accuracy. From keeping customers updated about the status of their order to streamlining manual, detailed tasks, automatic systems can radically transform warehouse operations. In this article, we discuss what warehouse automation is, the types and advantages of automatic warehouse systems and what tasks they're best suited for.

What is warehouse automation?

Warehouse automation is the process that makes a warehouse run independently using digital tools and technologies. Each business is unique, so their warehouse operations may vary. Digital systems for organised, efficient and automated warehouses can be a great asset. These tools involve anything from software that automatically checks stock levels to self-guided vehicles and warehouse drones. Whether you're applying for a warehouse manager position or your team is planning to open a new logistics facility, knowing when and how to use these automation tools is incredibly useful in warehousing.

Types of automation in warehousing

There are various types of automation systems that are important for both managers and warehouse operatives to understand. To effectively implement these automation technologies, training and experience are essential. Warehouse automation systems include both digital and labour-based automatic systems. Automatic systems feature in every aspect of the logistics process. Some of the most commonly used automation systems in warehousing include:

Automated storage and retrieval solutions

Automated storage and retrieval solutions speed up a range of systems in the warehouse by reducing the need for staff to move around the warehouse. This is a goods-to-person (GTP) technology that uses carousels, cranes and vehicles to move items around the warehouse. They can also retrieve and store items in the warehouse or bring items to workers for packing.

Conveyor systems

Conveyor systems move materials around the production or assembly line and they're one of the oldest types of automation technologies in warehousing. Some conveyor systems have scanners and sorting systems, whilst others simply move goods along the assembly line. Many logistics firms rely on conveyor systems for efficient goods handling.

Warehouse management systems

There are several digital warehouse management systems which organise, schedule and manage the operations of a warehouse more efficiently. This type of system can allow team members to view a business' complete inventory, across various facilities, enabling better resource management. These systems replace manual inventory tracking, which can be time-consuming and they also provide more information to customers about their order status.

Related: Guide to project controls

Automated guided vehicles

These self-guided vehicles move around a warehouse in the most efficient way. They have an onboard operator and can have in-built sensors, which can also reduce collisions. They also have GPS tracking, so the location of warehouse equipment is easily accessible for managers. There is also a wide range of fully automated warehouse vehicles that don't require an operator.

Collaborative mobile robots

Another relatively new approach is the use of collaborative mobile robots which work alongside humans to complete various tasks in the warehouse. They function to optimise picking routes, guide associates through the picking process, and enhance picking accuracy and productivity. There is a range of robotic solutions developed for warehouse operations and they work together or independently to create seamless production and distribution systems.

Fleet management systems

Many companies rely on their vehicle fleet for daily operations, so efficient management tools are essential as these fleets increase. They have a range of features, such as GPS locators, which allow managers to track the location of forklifts or vehicles on the road easily. They also have automatic warnings if there are any issues with the vehicle. Monitoring their usage allows managers to schedule timely maintenance.

Automated sorting systems

Sorting stock and materials off the conveyor and to different warehouse areas can be a time-consuming and physical task for warehouse operatives, so automated sorting systems provide a valuable alternative. These intelligent systems remove the manual labour required to recognise and move items on a warehouse conveyor, using sensors, barcode scanners and scales. Case sorters can handle large quantities of items, and unit sorters handle individual items.

Related: 12 warehouse operative skills

Voice picking solutions

Voice picking technology is a way that warehouse managers can communicate with operatives. The technology gives verbal commands and information to warehouse employees. Using a hands-free headset, warehouse operatives receive instructions on the requirements of the order, the location of inventory and the quantity to pick.

Pick-to-light and put-to-light systems

These innovative automation in warehousing systems use light devices to better manage the order picking process. A warehouse team member scans the barcode assigned to the order and then the lights mounted indicate what items need collecting and processing. Put-to-light systems complete the opposite function, for example, for returns. These systems are where workers scan a barcode and use the rack-mounted lights to place the right item in the right storage location.

What are the benefits of automation?

Automation is becoming increasingly crucial for companies in the UK and logistics staff who understand these tools and how to utilise them can be at a big advantage. Whether you're looking to cut costs in your logistics department, adjust to lower staffing levels or increase productivity, you can use automation in warehousing tools to streamline your operations. There are several benefits of automation in warehousing, including:

Higher accuracy levels

Another useful benefit of automation in warehousing is the potential for higher accuracy levels. In handling orders, these tools can enable better inventory management and stock control. For detailed work, automation tools make products that are exactly the same, reducing worker error and ensuring compliance with company standards. This can also help with quality control and scaling up an operation across multiple facilities.

Better workforce management

Automation systems can also make warehouses better for the people who work there. By using a digital warehouse management system, staff allocation is more efficient and they have the tools they require to complete their orders. Automatic systems can complete tedious, monotonous manual tasks, allowing team members to develop other talents and work in different areas of the business. Having automatic processes can also make sure staff get their allocated breaks, work in a safe environment and improve other skills.

Related: Product management solutions

Improved workplace safety

Health and safety is one of the highest priorities for any warehouse manager, and automatic warehouse systems can reduce the number of workplace risks for the whole team. Automated warehouse tools can reduce the need for workers to work at height, reduce contact with any potential hazards and reduce work accidents when operating dangerous machinery. Certain automatic systems can also reduce the risk of workplace injury from conditions like repetitive strain industry or back injuries from heavy lifting.

Lower long-term costs

Though automation tools in the warehousing industry come with a large initial investment, they can pay off quickly and reduce long-term costs for the business. Advanced manufacturing equipment can function continuously for long hours during the day and night, so warehouses can become more efficient. Automation tools can reduce staffing costs and can also boost productivity.

Future-proofing warehouse operations

There have been growing pressures on the labour market in the U.K. recently, with staff shortages and absences affecting all elements of the supply chain. Switching to automated warehouse solutions can reduce the dependence of staff and future-proof businesses against future labour shortages. Having automated systems can also give businesses an edge over their competitors, with faster order processing and larger capacity.

Choosing automation systems for warehousing

In choosing the right automation systems for the warehouse you manage, it's important to think about what challenges you're currently facing. There is a wide range of solutions available, and it's valuable to see what industry-specific automation tools could improve your warehouse operations. If you're having difficulties in order sorting, an automated sorting system could improve this dramatically. If staff absences are causing order delays, automatic processing systems can be a valuable addition. If stock control is consuming valuable staff time, a warehouse inventory management system would be an ideal solution.

Streamlining warehouse operations

If most of your team are using out-of-date technology, it could slow down processing orders dramatically, so it's important to invest in the right solution. As businesses grow, it's also important to consider the scalability of your warehouse operations and whether an automated solution could allow for quicker expansion. Some businesses also choose to utilise wearable technology, like headsets for voice picking and handheld scanners. These can make it easier for staff to keep on schedule and avoid delays.

Explore more articles