Game on for Automation

By Gary Forger 

Mid-year is a great time to get an update on the latest in automation. Beyond what was on display at ProMat ‘19, there have been a couple of important surveys released in the past couple of months on the use of automation. 

In a May article in Modern Materials Handling, the magazine’s annual automation survey “paints a picture of a distribution landscape that’s ripe for innovation.” And you guessed it, automation systems and solutions are leading the way. While companies don’t claim to be highly automated today, 42% “have either fully or partially automated conveyance,” reports MMH. In addition, 42% of order fulfillment operations “use a mix of automated and manual processes.” And 33% use goods-to-person picking solutions. By the way, only 4% of survey respondents were willing to characterize their fulfillment operations as “highly automated.”

In other words, automation has a long way to go. But as someone once said, “watch out, this could get very big - very quickly!”

The best display of that was this spring at ProMat in Chicago. Automation was everywhere. It was almost as if it had just exploded on the scene. Which, of course, isn’t the case since material handling automation has been around since the 1960s or even a little earlier. 

There were many different forms of automation on the floor ranging from storage-to-order picking to materials movement. Not to mention the numerous software systems on display that run the equipment and entire DC operations. 

However, it seems everyone was talking about robots of all sorts during that week in Chicago. Once almost entirely limited to ones with arms confined in cages, robots now roam around the DC floor right next to people. And, of course, there are others such as iBOT®s that make the OPEX® Perfect Pick® and Sure Sort systems so highly efficient.
 
Also, the focus is on automation for good reason. “It is clear that warehouse automation decreases operational costs, maintains high service levels, unlocks higher levels of volume flexibility for omnichannel fulfillment, reduces exposure to labor force scarcity, and potentially provides a sustainable business advantage.” That’s according to the Annual State of Logistics Report just published by CSCMP.
 
Clearly, there’s a strong case for automation in the DC.
 
Looking out to 2024, Zebra Technologies reports that its survey shows “61% of decision-makers plan to enable partial automation or labor augmentation with technology in the warehouse.” It’s easy to see that Perfect Pick and Sure Sort easily fill that bill. In addition, “decision-makers anticipate using robotics/bots for inbound inventory management (24%), outbound packaging (22%) and goods in/receiving (20%) by 2024. 

But here’s the telling statement in the Zebra report. “More than three-quarters (77%) of decision-makers agree that they need to modernize operations across the warehouse to remain competitive in the on-demand economy - but are slow to implement new mobile devices and technology.” 

As that certain someone said, “This could get very big, very quickly!” 

Game on. 

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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