In the early part of my career, after being trained as an engineer, I worked at an automotive processing and assembling facility. We developed and manufactured components that control the climate delivery in an automobile. It was there on that factory floor where I first saw how people made purchasing decisions.

People would go about analyzing sourcing decisions differently, depending on their objectives and goals. Procurement may look at the bid price and the vendor’s viability as a business. An executive may look at the total cost of ownership, the flexibility and ease of scaling the operations. An engineer might look at how safely, effectively and durably the equipment will operate and how easily operators can be trained to run the machinery. The IT manager might first consider the ease of integrating into the operation’s management systems.

While doing recent research on streamlining warehouse automation, I recalled my factory floor experience and how problems came up when making equipment purchase decisions.

One of the key challenges I’ve seen with warehouse and operations investments has been attention-grabbing equipment that appears to be “cool and shiny.” Decisions made without the proper due diligence can have the opposite of your desired impact. In warehouses, that can happen with highly automated equipment or robotic equipment such as material-handling robots with an operational application in a processing facility.

There’s nothing wrong with robots, but when they’re purchased as one-off decisions you end up with a collection of shiny objects and no coherent solution to solve your issues.

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Decisions made without the proper due diligence can have the opposite of your desired impact.


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Without the proper framework, the deployment of robots can lead to unnecessary frustration especially by those using and supporting it day to day. That in turn can lead to wasted investments when companies simply don’t use the equipment they’ve purchased. 

But this problem is avoidable. Here are three ways to ensure sure your organization is taking the proper steps when improving its warehouse operations.

  1. Ask if you need a warehouse
    Before you begin figuring out what needs to be in your warehouse, take a step back and ask if you need one at all. Define what your ROI is and make decisions from there. Is your ROI about labor cost improvement, improved attrition rate, better space utilization or a reduction in carbon footprint?

    If you decide you do need a warehouse, ask more questions: What type of warehouse? Are you a distributor of goods? Are you shipping to an end-user or your customer? Are you a fulfilment center like Amazon, that processes hundreds and thousands of SKUs at a high velocity and in a highly labor-intensive operational setting? Or are you a small-scale operation with manual operations and mechanized processes?

    As more retail companies are shutting brick and mortar locations, other questions arise. How do we serve our customer? What do we do with our buildings? Should we turn them into micro fulfilment centers? A showroom? If they’re continuing operations, how are they going to store products? Who are they shipping to and from where?

    Don’t grab a general solution simply to save time. Get specific about what you need and start from there.
  1. Learn to listen
    Listening can simply be observing. If you observe workers and their manual movements you might see people doing non-value-added work, such as picking and lifting which can lead to workplace injuries and low morale.

    By listening and observing you can also find key details. For example, parts that are slower moving than those that are faster moving or have a higher degree of variation in terms of size or scale often dictate the type of robot application or automation solution most suited.

    Listening also means implementing the right type of solution. Once you’ve examined the problem, you must probe and ask some fundamental questions such as, “How can I optimize the operations and reduce non-value-added work such as walking from one part of the process to another? Where can I eliminate waste and automate unnecessary movement?”

    Paying attention to your workers will also help you know when you need to skill them up, such as getting them accustomed to working side by side to a pick and place robot that is positioned to reach different work areas. People are often apprehensive of change especially when it is made without proper collaboration.

    We captured voices in the form of video diaries of the warehouse workers and supervisors from key global geographies and how they felt about automation in the warehouses they were working in.  We engaged a service, Vox Pop Me, to gather insights and to tell us how these technologies have made workers’ lives better by enabling them to perform their jobs in a safe manner, eliminating or reducing ergonomic challenges.
  1. Turn to technology
    Warehouses aren’t simply warehouses, they’re data houses where every item that comes in tells you a story, but that only matters if you’re able to capture it.

    All goods, whether in process or finished, are assigned a SKU number in the warehouse. The information behind SKUs can help with visibility to make critical decisions. For example, where the part placement in the storage system should take place based on how quickly it is moving. It’s essential that you have access to data points on an item to gain visibility of its movement for processing status and fulfilment. Furthermore, managing warehouses from the lens of data houses helps in areas of supply chain management. For example, you could better anticipate raw material requirements or anticipated ordering spikes due to seasonality requirements that result in a surge of orders requiring a scaling and upskilling of the workforce.

    In turn, data helps warehouse supervisors make more informed, smarter decisions that yield better solutions. For example, how many additional workers need to be scheduled to meet an upcoming fulfilment order? How many of them require training or what is the optimal movement of goods?

Slow and steady wins the race

Companies face immense pressure when it comes to automating warehouses because of the labor constraints or the multitude of automation technology solutions that exist as options. In today’s fast-paced world people want immediate solutions and, as a result, may make quick decisions. But it’s important to take the time to think more holistically rather than taking a point-solution approach.

It’s understandable why point solutions seem like they’ll solve an operational problem, but businesses must instead make decisions that enable them to become a more thriving and fulfilling place where automation unlocks greater and better returns. For example, integrating an automation solution to perform an operation such as a robot that picks goods from a storage shelf may not optimize the returns on your investments. Instead, a broader approach to automation integration that enables scalability and drives greater flexibility and visibility is a better choice.

Warehouse investments can be costly and the impact could be wide-reaching, so all the stakeholders involved from varying parts of the organization must collaborate more closely and look at the bigger picture before purchasing the next shiny object.


Rushda Afzal

Manager – Digital Transformation Research and Detroit Innovation Center Research Lead, Industry X

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