The use of automation equipment within warehouse facilities is not new, it’s been around for more than thirty years, and although prevalent in Europe, the US and Asia, it is still not common within South African businesses. Although some forwarding-looking companies have invested to a degree in automation, few can match that of their international counterparts.
To be clear, when we refer to automation, we are talking about equipment such as sortation systems, automated storage and retrieval systems, automated picking and robotic “pick and place”, to name just a few and the software that ties it all together.
Traditionally, you can attribute South Africa’s slow uptake to our relatively low labour costs and the significant investment needed to procure, install and service these systems, which almost exclusively come from large international vendors. Add to that the high unemployment rate, which makes the potentially large-scale retrenchments caused by automation a politically sensitive process to tackle. Therefore, although businesses may recognise the advantage that automation may bring, the ROI calculations haven’t made sense to most.
In the last few years, however, the landscape has changed, increasing international competition, labour unrest, and Covid causing many businesses to rethink the benefit of automation against the risk of heavy reliance on manual labour and processes. At Apex, we have seen a steady rise in the automation projects undertaken in the country, confirming that more and more companies recognise the role of automation in creating more efficient and streamlined operations to stay competitive in the modern world.
When should you consider automating your warehouse?
Adding automation equipment to your facility, when done correctly, can add a step-change to your ability to service your clients. If any of the below is true for you within your facility and your existing systems and processes cannot support you, then automation may be a consideration.
- Do your competitors outperform you in delivering to customers?
- Are you second to market with new products?
- Are you struggling to meet customer expectations?
- Are Omni-Channel and eCommerce in your strategy?
- Are you getting more customer complaints because you’re not fulfilling orders? There’s more than warehousing at risk here. There’s also reputational damage. Can you afford to lose clients?
- Are your inventory counts inaccurate?
- Do you have to hire extra staff to pick up the slack and then let them go when demand slows?
What makes up an automated solution?
An automated warehouse facility consists of different elements tied into your existing physical and system infrastructure.
- Warehouse Management and Control Systems
This is our world. When provided together, these two systems can unlock your facility’s power and provide you with the tools to create a high-speed, efficient, and accurate distribution facility. These systems come in several operating modes and can come from one or more vendors (you may already have the WMS in place, or your ERP fulfills that function).
- Warehouse Management System (WMS)
Typical in many warehouses, the WMS takes instructions from the financial system (ERP). The WMS is responsible for the physical receipt, storage and despatch of the inventory as a result of the instructions received from the ERP. These systems rely on sending instructions to warehouse operators and forklift truck drivers, who execute the instructions on mobile devices while moving through the warehouse.
- Warehouse Control System (WCS)
Typically, a WCS receives tasks from a WMS and utilises the physical automation equipment to move products around the warehouse to satisfy these tasks. The WCS communicates with the automation equipment sub-systems ensuring efficient execution of the tasks provided by the WMS. In its simplest configuration, the WCS does not contain knowledge of the inventory in the warehouse; instead, it manages the automation routes within the facility.
- Warehouse Execution System (WES)
The WES combines the capabilities of the two above systems in a single application, allowing for more efficient management and control of warehouse operations.
Here we refer to the physical equipment (and low-level controls) used to store and move products around the warehouse at high-speed. Warehouse facilities can utilise automation equipment to manage an entire warehouse operation or to control specific functions in the warehouse. Automation can be as simple as a print and apply or check weighing system before despatch through to more complex equipment such as robot palletisation, automated storage and retrieval systems and goods-to-man picking systems.
What can you expect after implementing automation?
An automated warehousing solution can:
- Satisfy and exceed your clients’ expectations.
- Ensure your employees are safe and manage the high-value management activities
- Reduce operational costs
- Increase productivity
- Increase efficiency
- Reduce human error
- Enhance data accuracy and analysis
- Reduce handling and storage costs
- Optimise your warehouse space
- Reduce inventory loss
- Improve inventory control
What do you need to be aware of?
With the decision to automate, it’s understandable to want to revolutionise your facility and perform all activities with your new automation equipment. But there are a few lessons to be learned from those that went before:
- Make sure that you don’t create single points of failure that would bring your operations to a standstill
- If a single point of failure is unavoidable, ensure you create manual backup processes within your WMS and WCS to allow you to continue operations while the fault condition is present.
- Ensure that you cater to products and orders that don’t conform to the automation requirements, such as large, heavy or dangerous goods.
- Maintain a large warehouse area for any manual processes that may exist now or may be needed in the future, such as rework, value-added services, etc.
- Ensure that you have despatch routes for large orders (e.g., full pallets) and that these tie into the system architecture in terms of system handover points.
At Apex, we are passionate about providing our clients with world-class Warehouse Management and Automation software. We are experts in integrating with both upstream systems (ERP and WMS) as well as the myriad of automation sub-systems on the market today. In addition, we are local and are here to guide you, work with you and support you as you automate and improve your facilities.
We work with local system integrators partners, who provide, install, and support the physical automation equipment and with whom we can engineer the right solution for your business, budget and strategy.
Find out why Alan Richard, CEO of Apex, started the company in 2006, with his experience in warehouse automation stretching back to the mid-’90s.