Don’t plan warehouse automation in a silo – automation touches every part of your organisation


There’s no point looking at one single part of your operation; you have to consider the entire supply chain

When you’re thinking about automating your warehouse or supply chain, you’re impacting every part of your organisation, says Terry Murphy, consultant at Hatmill.

From the way you interact with suppliers down to how your staff restock products in your retail outlets, automating your supply chain or warehouse operations touches every part of your business.

A shortage of labour was already driving companies to look at automation in areas such as warehousing. The impact of Brexit has exacerbated this, and we’re seeing significant new levels of interest in automating activities.

Whether you’re looking at lower cost, nimble solutions like Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) or full scale, state-of-the-art custom facilities, you’re not going to extract value from your investment unless you work across your entire organisation.

This means considering every department, business function and stakeholder, and having tools in place so you can effectively communicate with all of them. Every area of your operations must be adapted to run smoothly, and at the heart of this is good collaboration.

In simple terms, don’t view automation as a single entity in isolation. Instead, everything in your environment must be accounted for. If you want successful and scalable automation in your supply chain, leave no stone unturned.

Be ready to adapt and change everything

Let’s take today’s complex omnichannel retail model as an example of how everything is connected. For the sake of example (and because there’s too much to cram into one article!), we’ll zero into just one aspect you’ll need to consider – packaging.

  • Commercial and buying teams

When talking with suppliers, teams need to be aware of the packaging requirements, e.g. are they robust enough for the planned automation. For hanging garments, the specification of the hanger will need to be discussed and agreed with your buying/commercial teams if you are to avoid costly rework. Then there’s the question of labels and where they need to be on the packaging to ensure the automated system can read them – you don’t want to be fishing around inside a garment to find a label. Get this right, and the process from supplier, through the warehouse and into stores or direct to customers runs smoothly.

  • Marketing and sales

The growing trend of interactive packaging (such as QR codes linking to marketing promotions) or promotional branding on the packaging makes the relationship with marketing more vital than ever. Then there’s the commercial sensitivity to think about – retailers are understandably secretive about up and coming promotions and campaigns, especially around peak season, and this will need to be factored in too. How will you store packaging until it’s time? When and how will it go ‘live’?

  • Sustainability 

Consumers are increasingly engaged in the environmental impact of their shopping behaviour, and 74% are willing to pay more to save rubbish going to landfills. Packaging for online sales needs to be tough enough to withstand a journey on several vehicles and sortation systems, the right shape and size to work with your automated system and yet also be sustainable. Then there’s reporting – will the Board want to measure and report on how you’re reducing the volume of packaging and plastic you use? How can you ensure customers can recycle it? To solve this problem, you’ll need to work with your sustainability teams and your online sales teams.

  • Stores

Understanding the layout of stores and stock rooms can ensure boxes are delivered to store containing items that sit next to each other on shelves to help speed up restocking. So, no longer do you have one SKU in a single box when you might need 3 or 4 units at a time. Now, you can have multiple products in one package – instead of staff going back and forth to the stockroom to fill three or four metres of shelving, staff can restock in one go, so the productivity benefits can be huge. It’s possible to manage shop floors with smaller teams and redeploy people to support online sales.

Making the business case for warehouse automation – it’s not just for eCommerce

As we’ve seen from the example above, automation isn’t just about online eCommerce operations. As well as savings within the warehouse, automation can also achieve savings throughout the supply chain. Working together with your finance department is essential for getting a complete end-to-end cost-benefit analysis – but don’t forget to factor in accurate life cycle costs for potential replacement of your equipment; it won’t last forever! Automation has massive potential but needs to be done right to deliver the desired returns across the business.

Making automation work – communicate with stakeholders

A big part of holistic automation is the management of upstream and downstream stakeholders. While many organisations focus on downstream, it’s just as vital to look at the upstream effects of automated technology – finance, HR, commercial, buying, marketing, sales and sustainability.

Automation truly is an end-to-end project. Make sure you plan and strategise with the entire supply chain in mind; otherwise, the end result will be inefficient or ineffective.


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