7 Practical Considerations of Automation

Last week we focused on the financial considerations of automation. This time around the practical considerations are front and center.

“The practical considerations of automation are often the tiebreaker in cap ex decisions,” said Troy VanWormer at a ProMat 2019 seminar. VanWormer, by the way, is the Director of Warehouse Automation, West Coast at OPEX.

He thinks the practical considerations of automation are so important that they can override return on investment numbers. That’s a bold statement, but VanWormer can back it up.

To do so, he provides 7 key factors for consideration.

Let’s take them in order.

1. Order profiles and product characteristics

Start with an inventory of your order sizes, including lines and units per order. Add in your SKU count and product size and weight. The final factor is a bit unexpected but is actually a very practical consideration - fragility. Quite simply, is product damage a problem now? Certain types of automation can help with that, but you have to find a match between your equipment and your product’s fragility, VanWormer explains.

2. Service Levels

Next up are service levels. It is not uncommon for automation to increase processing speed 10x. It can also improve accuracy, generally 1-2%, unless you have a really flawed operation right now. There’s also the matter of reducing the number of touches that minimize damage potential.

3. Building Specifications

Needless to say, any automated system has to fit into the building footprint (unless you’ve already decided to expand the facility). Considerations here range from clear height to floor flatness. Electrical requirements and seismic considerations are important, too. And certainly don’t overlook fire protection.

4. Technology

Technology starts with current systems and their level of complexity/sophistication. Automation can’t be an island. It must fully integrate with systems and processes already in place. There may have to be some adjustments made along the way; however, it all has to be integrated. That includes integration with other material handling equipment and software such as warehouse management systems and warehouse control systems. No islands of automation, that’s so 1980s.

5. Labor

Then there’s everybody’s favorite subject today – labor. Automation often requires less labor, but it doesn’t necessarily replace it entirely. That means you need to evaluate what VanWormer calls hidden labor costs: workers comp, absenteeism, tardiness, morale and retention. All are easy to overlook but are costly in both dollars and operationally, which brings in the cost of training, a sure bet at least initially with automation.

6. Human Factors

In fact, training carries over to how humans relate to automation. That’s not a silly thought, but a very real concern. Technology can be threatening if not properly introduced to people and integrated with processes. There’s also the matter of safety. Basically, automation improves nothing if safety is sacrificed along the way. In short, underestimate the human factors associated with automation at your own peril and the people out on the floor.

7. Prestige

And last but certainly not least, VanWormer closes with Prestige. He mentions there are some companies that want to be viewed as “high-tech” by the market and their customers. The power of perception can be so strong that prestige alone can be the top reason CEOs will invest in automation.

So, there you have it, a great list of practical considerations when evaluating and selecting automation that’s right for your operations. Choosing wisely will can make your selection of automation a win-win.

Next week we’re going to open up the labor discussion and how it relates to automation.

Gary Forger is the former editor of Modern Materials Handling magazine and the Material Handling & Logistics U.S. Roadmap to 2030. 


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