Kenco discusses how to get started with automation in your materials handling (MHE) processes. We acknowledge that there are many automation solutions available and can be overwhelming, but emphasize that taking it slow and focusing on the right areas can lead to successful implementation. The article offers a three-step approach:

  1. Start with repetitive activities: Identify specific pain points such as pallet movement and focus on automating those tasks.
  2. Examine your processes: Ensure your workflows are optimized to work with automation. This includes having clean data for robots to function correctly.
  3. Set your rules: Consider the impact on human employees and establish safety protocols for human-robot interaction. The article also recommends getting help from consultants if needed.

If you had the opportunity to visit this year’s MODEX show in Atlanta, you might’ve felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of automation solutions available. From palletizers to conveyors, autonomous mobile robots to drones, aisle after aisle offered multiple reminders that there is no shortage of ways to implement next-gen technology in your facility.

These innovations are in many ways a blessing, but they can also be a curse. With so many options and so many vendors to implement, understanding where to start can leave you paralyzed. You know you want to transition away from time-consuming manual processes, but there’s fear of picking the wrong technology and wasting resources. And even if it is the right technology, will it be integrated incorrectly and leave value on the table?

Stop and take a deep breath. Automation isn’t a race, and it’s worth taking your time to be certain you’re making the right investments – particularly when it comes to materials handling equipment. If you’re ready to automate but are stuck in the research phase, here’s a guide to making your first project a reality:

Start with your repetitive activities

Successful automation projects don’t start with the goal of reinventing an entire process. Rather, they target one or two specific pain points – for example, a pallet movement, or a specific movement within the picking process. Narrowing your focus can help the project seem far less overwhelming. Spend some time on the facility floor observing the flow of goods from MHE asset to MHE asset, and see which inefficiencies most impact productivity downstream. Then, quantify the expenses related to that inefficiency to create an automation cost/benefit analysis.

Remember: automation for automation’s sake can hurt productivity rather than help. If you haven’t researched which of your MHE assets would benefit from the upgrade, you’ll invest precious resources on technology that offers no improvement over manual processes, or could even slow operations down. For every investment you make, you should have a clear understanding of how long it will take to achieve ROI.

Examine your processes

Automation can work wonders within your facilities, but it does have its limits. Before you install these assets, you’ll need to ensure all the workflows they’ll join are optimized – a robot can only work with the instructions you give it, and bad instructions will lead to unproductive outcomes. Take picking for instance. If you plan to integrate AMRs to pick items or cases, check to ensure all your inventory management processes keep your stock data clean and up-to-date. A robot can only pick a case if it’s actually in stock and in the right location.

The benefits of upgrading your processes go beyond preparing for your first project, however. You’ll likely find a productivity boost before the technology is even installed, and you’ll start to see other opportunities for automation that will make transitioning to your next project considerably smoother.

Set your rules

As you’re preparing your warehouse for automated MHE, consider the impact these new tools will have on your human employees. If it’s the first time robots have operated within your facility, you’ll need to define the area the robots will traverse, and try to minimize spaces where humans and robots cross paths. If/when they do, there should be clear directions for how humans should approach the intersection to avoid injury.

In the months leading up to integration, pay close attention to the attitudes toward automation within your facility. Look to build a culture where continuous improvement is celebrated. When employees feel involved in the integration process, they’ll be more motivated to learn about and take the reins of the new solution quickly. This approach makes it much easier to train your employees on safety precautions and proper care and use of the new assets, and potentially speed up the time it takes to see ROI.

Help never hurts

If you’re uncomfortable taking on automation alone, or you want peace-of-mind that your solution will be implemented correctly, working with a consultant could be the right decision. With Kenco MHE Solutions’ Automation Guidance, we help you execute every step of your automation project. We’ll work with you to identify the right areas of your warehouse to address, handle all procurement, construction and installation, and offer ongoing management of your assets.

Interested in learning more? Kenco’s Kristi Montgomery – VP, Innovation, Research & Development – as well as Blue Buffalo’s Jeff Kester – Director, Logistics & Customer Operations – spoke about automation strategies and how Automation Guidance can help during their recent webinar, “Making MHE Automation a Reality.” You can view the replay here.