Warehouse automation isn’t just for market giants. Here are 5 tips for SMEs who want to streamline or scale up their operations.

With so many moving parts in your warehouse, it’s hard to maintain complete visibility over your operations. On the other hand, you can’t afford to take your eyes off the ball. A few glitches can disrupt your workflow, reduce productivity and cause you to fall behind your competitors.

Warehouse automation won’t answer all your prayers, but it can fill technological and staffing gaps and free you up from the grind of daily troubleshooting to focus on more strategic responsibilities. What’s more, automation isn’t just for market giants— small and medium-sized enterprises can benefit from it too. Here are five tips for achieving a more automated warehouse.

1. optimize your inventory management

Before shopping for new software and equipment, it’s worth assessing how many of your problems are caused by people simply not following best practices and documented processes. Once you’ve optimized your inventory management, you’ll have a clearer idea of the kind of automation that will reduce your lead times and lead time variability.

2. automate at the right time

The worst time to automate warehouse processes? During regular working hours. It will take time to install the equipment and software, and you’ll also need to train your employees to handle the new tech. Things can quickly grind to a halt.

The best time to implement warehouse automation is when you've got downtime programmed in for other reasons — if you’re relocating, consolidating or expanding, for example, when disruption to your operations is guaranteed.

3. choose the right level of warehouse automation

Let’s review the three levels of warehouse automation:

  1. System: use of warehouse management systems (WMS)
  2. Mechanized: use of conveyor systems, retrieval systems and automated storage
  3. Sophisticated: use of highly automated equipment (i.e., automatic sorters, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), automized palletizers and robotic picking systems)

Sophisticated automation is costly, and only some businesses will achieve an acceptable ROI if they take this route. Therefore, it’s critical to determine what you want to achieve before splurging on state-of-the-art tech.

For most SMEs, a mix of manual and automated work is ideal, relieving warehouse staff of some of their more repetitive and low-skilled tasks. This will improve your employer brand, making it easier to attract and retain qualified workers — a core challenge for all SMEs in the current hiring market.

4. pick a user-friendly WMS

A warehouse management system with all the bells and whistles might sound attractive. However, if it’s loaded with functionality you don’t need or isn’t user-friendly, many of its features will go unused by staff — a wasted investment.

Don’t let vendors sell you a solution in search of a problem. If in doubt, purchase a modular, entry-level WMS that can be upgraded as your needs evolve.

5. integrate AS/RS with other solutions for warehouse automation

An automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) allows you to fill your warehouse to capacity. It also improves order-picking accuracy.

To use AS/RS effectively, you need to integrate it with your warehouse execution software (WES) and WMS. This integration enables you to auto-rotate inventory intelligently and scale your operations up or down according to demand.

Finally, your warehousing and distribution technologies are only as effective as the people who run them. Partner with us to find the best manufacturing and logistics talent.