Warehouse automation: five emerging trends

Ergonomics, new tote configurations deliver efficiency, sustainability.

By Greg Alesci, ORBIS and Tom Pollard, P.Eng., Cimcorp October 7, 2016

Shopping for products has never been easier for today’s consumer. With the touch of a button, customers can add and remove items from their virtual shopping cart and expect it to show up on their doorstep just a few business days later. Because of this, manufacturers need rapid fulfillment to keep up with technology advancements and customer demands. They can better streamline operations by automating their distribution centers and warehouses.

As more automation is implemented into facilities, it is critical that product moves seamlessly and effectively throughout the system. The use of plastic reusable totes, crates, pallets and other plastic packaging is one consideration that offers repeatable performance in all types of systems, including mini-load systems, conveyors, robotics, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and full automation.

Major trends are emerging as more facilities adopt sustainable and earth-friendly solutions. These are the five trends that we predict will make a big impact as automation and reusable packaging continue to gain a foothold in the logistics market.

1. Ergonomic handling. The handling of totes will dramatically change. Previously, totes and crates were packed based on strict weight or height capacity requirements so that workers could manually lift and move them. By implementing automation into the facility, manufacturers can increase the overall tote capacity and tolerance. Totes will be packed heavier and stacked higher because the automated systems and robots have the ability to handle taller stacks and heavier loads. Increasing the tote capacity will enable manufacturers to move more products effectively and more efficiently, resulting in higher throughput.

2. New tote configurations. Boxes and totes will take new forms and will be designed with customized automated solutions in mind to better fit the system’s needs. For example, a semi-manual and automated facility will start to see reusable, plastic corrugated boxes with sealed edges so the flutes will not be exposed, for easier worker handling. The box flap will go back to its original place each time prior to entering the automated system. Collapsible, dividable compartments and hopper fronts are three more configurations that will emerge as tote and crate designs continue to evolve.

3. Standardized totes. The standardized tote sizes that can be purchased and ready for automation is the future and will bring significant value to end-users and integrators. Currently, the cost to build a mold for a custom tote can be challenging to financially justify and can add time to project plans. By removing the need to create a custom tote each time and creating a small group of standardized totes that can be handled by automation, manufacturers will be able to save design and engineering costs. Eventually, the industry may see a refined prepackaged, out-of-the box solution with a proven track history being offered. In the end, this can reduce the overall amount of capital investment needed to build a new system.

4. Reduction in racking. Automation will allow for warehouses and distribution centers to move away from racking. By removing racking, manufacturers will have a cleaner work environment and better access to product, all within a smaller work area allowing for better space utilization.

5. More traceability. Customers are demanding to know where their product is once they’ve clicked "Submit Order" and many industries need to be able to trace where product has been along the entire supply chain. This will result in more totes and crates with radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags being moved through automated systems with sophisticated warehouse management system (WMS) systems that can easily track and trace products. This will allow for greater visibility of each specific tote and crate as it flows within distribution centers and warehouses and is transported to the customer.

Consumers have rapidly embraced online technologies in order to receive their products faster, which in turn require manufacturers to adapt just as quickly. To ensure the most cost-effective system solution is brought forward, first determine the organization’s requirements and then find the right vendors to make it a reality. By readily embracing advancements in integrated automated systems, manufacturers and distributors can stay competitive while meeting customer demands.

Greg Alesci is strategic account manager at ORBIS and Tom Pollard is an applications engineer for Cimcorp.