When Is It Time to Automate?

Generally speaking, any time you make a manual process unnecessary—whether through software or equipment—you have implemented automation. Typically there are two drivers behind an automation project. Either you are looking to save ongoing costs through labor reduction, or you need to improve your customer service levels and requirements. Continuous improvement initiatives are important to achieve and maintain optimal distribution operations for competitive advantage. Automation isn’t always the answer. All the same, it is imperative that you adequately automate—but not overautomate.

Congested pick areas, excessive late deliveries, inaccurate orders, chargebacks, and customer complaints are red flags that your manual system may need a boost from automation. Tracking within the areas of your distribution center, in addition to out-the-door metrics, will help you measure your distribution performance. Set a limit of what is not acceptable for your customer satisfaction level. Do not allow your distribution center to operate below that level. Before you reach the red level, you should already be making plans on facility improvements, which may include automating one or more processes.

Whether you are looking to automate your inventory control, picking process, sortation, packaging, or closeout, you should be able to justify the cost with long-term benefit. This requires data analysis for current and ongoing scenarios. You should compare multiple concepts, ranging from no automation to varying levels of automation, and select the one that provides the most cost-effective solution. This may require a phased-in approach, which involves modifying or reconfiguring processes without automation and then incorporating the technology and/or equipment when funds and time are available.

You must also remember that automation needs upkeep and maintenance. It’s advantageous to have an onsite maintenance supervisor or software engineer keep the automation running smoothly and effectively.

Bob Babel is vice president of engineering for Mason, OH-based supply chain consultancy Forte (www.forte-industries.com).

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