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3 Ways to Leverage Automation to Enhance Operational Agility

Change is constant in most warehousing and distribution operations. New items and inventory replace dwindling stock-keeping units (SKUs). Order volumes rise and fall with seasonal shifts. Peak throughput fluctuates as customers respond to promotions or trends.  

Historically, facilities could adjust to these changes by staffing overtime hours or temporary labor, but today’s workforce challenges have made that increasingly difficult. Instead, applying the latest automated solutions can help operations improve day-to-day efficiency and deftly adapt to anticipated changes. Here are three ways automation enhances operational agility. 

1. Automation adapts dynamically to changing order profiles. 

In high-throughput operations like e-commerce, continuously changing order profiles keep SKU velocities in a perpetual state of flux. Thanks to shifting demand, today’s fast movers can become tomorrow’s slow movers. Manual inventory slotting and reslotting processes can’t keep pace.  

But today’s automated systems—such as cube-based automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS)—utilize integrated slotting functionality to respond to changing demand. Software directs the storage system to automatically deliver SKUs needed to fulfill orders to the picking station and dynamically rearranges products through the same process.

This functionality keeps the most popular SKUs stored in the most accessible positions (near the top) while storing SKUs ordered less often in lower-priority locations (near the bottom). These systems help operations evolve to being proactive—instead of reactive—to shifts in SKU velocity. 

2. Automated systems can be comprised of multiple technologies. 

With warehouse execution software (WES), an operation can deploy multiple best-in-class automated technologies from different original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to create the optimal inventory management and order fulfillment process. Whether a system includes AS/RS, automatic palletizers or depalletizers, robotic picking, conveyors, sortation, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs), automated packaging systems, or other automated technologies, the WES ties all the systems together. 

The overarching WES enhances operational agility by synchronizing the multiple automated systems and orchestrating balanced workflows through each. It also provides operations managers visibility to their entire system, end-to-end, from a single graphical user interface (GUI). This eliminates islands of automation and streamlines a process for better agility by monitoring and responding to bottlenecks by continuously allocating work for maximum throughput.  

3. Automation can be scaled incrementally. 

Traditional automation systems, such as conveyors and sorters, are fixed infrastructures. Not only are they difficult to quickly reconfigure, but they also have a maximum throughput rate that allows them to only handle so many loads at one time. When demand patterns are relatively stable, fixed automation is an acceptable solution. However, fixed automation does not support maximum operational flexibility with today’s highly variable order profiles. 

The newest automated technologies, such as AMRs, flexibly adapt to business changes, including seasonal variability, order volumes, and throughput requirements. Their modular functionality allows them to be deployed incrementally—with more units added to (or removed from) a fleet as needed. Additionally, many robotics vendors offer AMRs in a leasing arrangement. Both factors enhance agility by allowing an operation to try a few AMRs without a massive capital investment up front, then scale the system up by adding more as needed—or by leasing additional bots during peaks. 

Are you looking to increase your operational agility through automation? Let KPI’s experts design a system that helps your facility better respond to anticipated (and unanticipated) changes. Contact us today

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July 11, 2023