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Warehouse Automation Risks to Avoid

Your system should be flexible and scalable enough for future needs

Automation Inquiry

illustration of conveyor and robotic systems integration
Automation can work wonders. It reduces costs, increases throughput, curbs errors and increases safety. The costs of automation are declining while the effectiveness of computer, vision and scanning systems are improving. Automation helps you reduce repetitive actions — the kind that adds no value. The common perception is that automated facilities are dark, free of people and full of robots, but the reality is that automation comes in many forms, ranging from picking systems like pick-to-light to automated conveyors to goods-to-person systems and much more.

For all these benefits, you want to understand the potential problems with any automation project in advance so you can avoid them as you move forward.

Risk #1: You automate a bad process

One plant engineer told us after an automated warehouse project that his system works because his team sweated every detail.

He said that he’d been involved in projects at other companies that didn’t fully think the process through. They didn’t understand the process and they created problems. He said that you can’t automate a broken system or you just make mistakes faster. The point is that you have to have full objectives laid out. You must understand how more throughput in picking could affect packing and shipping. You have to have a comprehensive understanding of the entire process before implementing an automated solution of any kind.

Never automate a broken process. The best projects are thoroughly planned with buy-in from all the players and departments so that the system benefits the entire operation

Risk #2: You automate without planning for growth

Robotic conveyor picking line on a factory floor

We did an order fulfillment project recently where the pick modules were preconfigured for future growth. The immediate costs of building them so that another level could be added later were fairly insignificant, but the ability to expand was invaluable.

  • Space: Can your system be expanded up, out or otherwise, as in the example above?
  • Throughput: It’s much easier to build a faster system that doesn’t use the speed now than it is to increase speed in the future. If you can increase flow rates at will, you can also adapt to seasonal spikes or sudden changes in order volumes. Your system should be capable of higher speed than you need on a daily basis. The costs are fairly minor but the ability to gear up is invaluable.
  • Additions: If you anticipate future growth, can your building handle more work cells? Can you add overhead conveyors or robots in key areas that will help you meet demand?

Any good system should be built with the future in mind, so that capacity and flexibility are baked in

Risk #3: You automate the wrong thing at the wrong time

One thing smart companies do is to weigh the need for full automation vs. partial automation. Partial automation is smart for many types of operations, where the ROI may not be there for a fully-automated system. One of the places we often see partial automation is end-of-line palletizing, where machinery can take the place of human labor using automation like palletizers or robots.

If you automate a work cell or palletizing operation, be aware of the way that may affect upstream or downstream work. Does it create bottlenecks elsewhere? If you add higher speed conveyors in picking, can your packing process handle the output? It can all be adjusted if considered in advance.

Another example: If you aren’t comprehensive in your thinking, you can end up focusing too heavily on picking and shipping. Most DCs are evaluated on areas like shipping and accuracy, so that’s natural. What if you ramp up those areas, but fail to take replenishment into account? If you can’t stock that hyper-fast pick and pass line in time, that speed is squandered. Look at inbound shipments, replenishment and maintenance as you design your system.

A design that’s comprehensive is harmonious, and can make all the difference. 

Risk #4: You don’t include your floor employees & middle managers in the process

Order picking lines with pick to light and trained employees

Automation almost always depends on employee buy-in. Success is about far more than well-designed equipment and software. As with many other things in life, it’s about people. You may need to change your organization. You may need to consult with departments who aren’t usually involved in the process.

This is key for middle managers and floor leaders who can turn the tide in your favor as a project progresses.

You’ll almost surely need to retrain workers whose jobs will be radically affected by the new system. That training must happen, either in an organized manner before you implement the system or afterwards, when you’ll have less control, more chaos and lots more pressure. Successful implementations usually focus on training, re-training and consulting with employees who will use the equipment. You can’t train too much if you want to launch successfully.

Don’t forget how difficult change can be for many people. Work to help them understand the new way of working and how it will help them succeed. Part of this is training on how to use the system, but some of it is education about why the system makes things better for everyone. People almost always respond better if they’re asked for input. Most well-designed automation is simpler for the people who operate it, but change is always difficult.

Read more: Why Your Order Pickers Should be More Like Fast Food Workers

Scanning an order on the conveyor line with a hand-held RF scanner

Risk #5: You don’t take your facility environment into account

The wrong operational environment can absolutely cripple automated equipment. Moisture, temperature, chemicals, oils, dust and airborne debris can reduce the functional life of automated systems or cripple them entirely in extreme situations. If you’re operating a typical dry or temperature-controlled shipping warehouse that doesn’t require washdown or sanitization, you should still evaluate the conditions where expensive conveyors or robots will be installed. Corrugate dust from everyday cartons can build up on exposed machinery. Good maintenance processes can help with this aspect.

Most conveyors and other equipment can be manufactured to function in wet or washdown conditions such as those you often see in food processing, pharmaceuticals or other clean areas.

Read more: Conveyors in Difficult Environments and Summertime Heat

Also, consider noise levels. Many modern types of conveyors generate significantly less noise, but if your machinery is loud and noisy, it can affect your employees. That ergonomic effect should be evaluated when you plan your system.

Risk #6: You didn’t anticipate potential startup difficulties

When you’re making major changes to your operation, even the best of plans can run into problems. If you are aware of the possibilities and take steps to ensure your operation can withstand service interruptions as the kinks are worked out, you will mitigate risks. The process of planning for interruptions can even help you spot weaknesses in the plan. When these interruptions happen, they’re short term, but you can still be ready for them with good planning.

The gains are real, but they may not be there from day one. If you and your automation partners have done their job, the adjustment period won’t last long and won’t be painful.

Reducing system start-up woes:

  • Don’t gloss over the startup checklist. Make sure your team is aware of all items on it, and their roles in the project.
  • Make sure your staff is involved in the system plans as much as possible.
  • Train – and train some more – prior to startup. You almost can’t train too much.
  • Run the system live multiple times. Try to think of scenarios that could bog you down.
  • Have your maintenance crews and contractors well-acquainted with the new equipment.
  • Stock critical spare parts from day one.
  • Pay attention during the de-bug phase. Make sure you’re dialed into all the aspects and critical decisions.
  • Ask plenty of questions, particularly in the late stages. Little changes can have large impacts.
  • Be aware of the division of responsibilities. If you or your vendors have a particular responsibility, be sure you’re aware of it, and who to work with in the event of problems.
  • Know your subcontractors. In a system project, there can be dozens. This is one instance where a turnkey partner who handles all aspects is invaluable.

New systems almost always have an adjustment period after deployment. You can reduce the timeframe and the problems with careful planning, but it’s natural that there will be issues with any larger scale system that integrates various software systems, automation equipment and human processes. Good project management makes all the difference when it comes to making these transitions as smooth as possible. It’s a matter of short-term pain for long-term gain, and always worth it.

Don’t be intimidated

Many of these risks can be mitigated early in the process, with the right partner, and with a strong design process. Automated systems can be transformative. They make your company faster, more accurate and more resilient. Yes, there are risks, but you can mitigate them with careful forethought and smart design.

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Scott Stone is Cisco-Eagle's Vice President of Marketing with more than thirty years of experience in material handling, warehousing and industrial operations. His work is published in multiple industry journals an websites on a variety of warehousing topics. He writes about automation, warehousing, safety, manufacturing and other areas of concern for industrial operations and those who operate them.

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