Warehouse automation has gone from strength to strength over the last decade, with rapid change as technology shifts to keep up with the increasingly digital and volatile supply chain world. Traditional technologies such as mini-loads and shuttle systems, from firmly established stalwarts in automated warehouses, are now being challenged by developing technologies such as Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV) and Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMR) because they can offer flexible, scalable and lower capital investment solutions.
This disruption and rapid change create a dilemma for logistics and supply chain leaders and their management teams – with so many options, how do you know which warehouse automation technology is right for your business?
To answer this question and evaluate the best automation solution, there are some common obstacles that need to be overcome:
- The challenge of building an automation strategy around a business with legacy systems and complex interconnected processes
- Having an awareness of the range of available automation technology and most importantly its application
- Understanding the complex physical and systematic supplier solutions that support each technology
- Access to impartial advice that will assist in transparently evaluating proposed solutions
- A lack of in-house expertise or bandwidth to invest in scoping, designing, tendering, testing and implementing solutions
- Being able to accurately determine the Return on Investment period for Capital Investment
Experienced Warehouse Automation Team
At Hatmill we have a team experienced in supporting businesses to identify, evaluate, and implement the right warehouse automation solution:
- Supply chain automation strategy – Defining or reviewing your supply chain strategy is fundamental to the automation design process to ensure that it’s aligned to your business strategy and customer proposition. Data analysis (an often underinvested in and critical part of the process) enables us to build a baseline before going out to market to determine which technology is best suited to meet the requirements of the business. Completing detailed analysis at the start of the process enables a clear vision and strategy for your supply chain to be developed.
- Market knowledge and automation application experience – our team have both the technical skills and practical knowledge having designed, developed and implemented multiple automated solutions across a wide range of technologies. We are also familiar with the breadth of skillsets and 3rd party consultants that are usually engaged on these projects and have been able to build solid partnerships with a number of specialists who understand our collaborative programme management approach
- End-to-end support – having developed a tried-and-tested automation solution design and implementation structure, we can support clients from development of the strategy and business case through the full length of the programme to go-live, increasing the speed to market.
- Support in the right areas – whether it is expert technical knowledge in specific areas, or increased bandwidth to support an otherwise developed team, we can adapt our support offer to meet your requirements.
- Understand and mitigate risk – our team is made up of people with operational experience and years of know how in implementing systems, we can help combat VUCA (Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) and mitigate your risks, so you can learn from our past experience to avoid unnecessary (and often expensive) mistakes.
Warehouse Automation Technology
Our experience in warehouse automation projects delivery and implementation means we’ve developed an in-depth understanding of the various technologies available to help you find the right solution for your business – now and for the future:
- Shuttle systems - Designed for medium to high throughput rates and provide dense storage for a varying range of SKU sizes that can be installed in different temperature environments. Often, they are implemented alongside Goods-to-Person technology as the supply engine
- Mini-load systems - Designed for low to medium throughput rates and provide dense storage for a varying range of SKU sizes and can be installed in different temperature environments
- Hive storage systems - Hive systems (or grid systems) are a matrix of bins with picking robots sitting above them. These systems are great for storing small SKUs in small quantities, offering incredibly dense storage with fast pick rates
- Goods-to-person (GTP) systems - Offer highly accurate and fast picking, bringing the goods to the person and removing all that wasted travel time for pickers. Whether picking single, multi or batch orders, these systems are great in e-commerce environments
- Put walls - Often used in conjunction with Pick-to-Light (or Put-to-Light) systems offer an effective sortation method for breaking down batch picks of SKUs into individual customer or store orders. They reduce the amount of wasted travel time for pickers and come in a wide range of formats dependant on the SKU type
- Zone picking systems - Zone picking or conveyor systems are an effective means of transporting totes or pallets through multiple product zones so that orders can be completed as necessary, with the picker remaining in their own zone Hanging garment systems and pouch sortation
- Hanging garment systems - Provide multi-layer storage for fashion retailers, enabling the sortation and picking of items. Pouch systems have developed as an effective means of high-speed sortation especially when items can be picked in batches for multiple orders and sequenced to pack stations through a hanging pouch sortation system
- Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) - Can be used in a wide range of applications, from tuggers and load transporters to unit load carriers. They follow fixed routes and are great at completing repetitive manual tasks, this can free up your workforce to complete more complex activities
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) - Similar to AGVs, AMRs have a wide range of applications, from picking to inventory robots. The key difference is that these vehicles are ‘autonomous’ meaning they can plan their own routes and make decisions to move around obstructions. In addition, they often have an ability for ‘machine learning’ which means they can become more efficient through constant use
- Robotics - Are quickly gaining momentum into the supply chain and logistics space because of the potential to remove repetitive and expensive manual fulfilment tasks. De-palletising, kit stacking, and sortation systems are becoming common in the industry with order picking robots quickly gaining momentum
- Auto-boxing & Auto-baggers - Enable the automation of the packing process and can enable much higher pack rates than a manual packing operation. They can also aid in reducing the amount of packaging required and therefore the amount of waste and space taken up on transportation. These packing solutions can integrate with other solutions to insert invoices, leaflets, and apply courier labelling
- Carton Erection - Machines remove the repetitive manual task of creating boxes and ensure that pickers and packers always have a steady supply of the right size box to pick their orders into. These are often complemented with automated lidding machines.
- Sortation - Systems enable fast, efficient and reliable item sortation, whether that be for sorting batched picked items into individual orders or splitting down outbound items to different destinations. They often form part of more complex automated solutions but can also be integrated into manual operations.
- Conveyors - The technology comes in a wide range of applications and acts to join up parts of your manual or automated warehouse
Creating a fit-for-the-future automation solution.
Our approach to warehouse automation solution design and implementation
To understand your requirements, we start by familiarising ourselves with your business to get to grips with the supply chain strategy and customer proposition. We then embed ourselves in the operation to understand the challenges that need to be solved with the new solution.
By completing data analysis and process flow modelling we create an operational baseline that provides a benchmark for comparison. This helps us to quickly identify automation applications that are suitable for your business and enables us to move with pace through the design process.
Business requirements gathering;
- What is the business strategy?
- What are the challenges to delivering the service levels for customers now and in the future?
- What is the business culture and priorities?
- What does the typical order profile look like including seasonality and business growth projections?
- What are the stockholding and SKU assumptions?
- How should goods be received, replenished, fulfilled, packed and transported?
- What is the design scope;
- New warehouse
- Warehouse migration
- Re-design or modification of existing building
Model and Business Case Development
An operational base line is fundamental to the design process. It allows us to model and compare different automation solutions and provide evidence to support the business case. It also enables us to:
- Model scenarios based on business change
- Evaluate the quality of data - inaccurate or missing data will at best slow down the design process, and at worst mean that a system is designed that doesn’t meet the business requirements
Data analysis and interpretation is one of the most time-consuming parts of any automation project and investing time on this upfront activity often pays dividends later.
Our combined knowledge of the supply base and design experience means we can make sensible assumptions on automation equipment and running costs. We are also able to conceptually model solutions in order to allow early assumptions to be made on fitout and delivery costs.
We recommend starting the Concept Development phase by releasing a Request for Information (RFI) prior to a main tender. The RFI allows for:
- A more focused tender process allowing us to target vetted suppliers who are best positioned to deliver solutions that are fit for purpose within the timescale available
- Generation of solutions and ideas that may not have previously been considered
One of the challenges businesses face is the evaluation and technical appraisal of the responses so that they can determine the right partner and best cost to serve model. Our approach helps you distinguish between solutions and objectively evaluates them against a defined set of criteria.
In partnership with your legal team, we can help to design the right type of contract to support the solution being implemented. Our considerations for contracting are:
- Most large-scale automation projects are governed by MF1. Avoid complicated amendments to the standard form of contract – keep it simple
- Small projects don’t need MF1, but the same focus is required on the technical documentation
- Whichever type of contract is most suited, focusing on the technical integrity of the contract documents will ensure the project is set up to succeed
- Continuity of resource throughout the design and contracting stages is essential to ensure carryover of tacit knowledge
We have built up relationships with a number of specialist consultancies enabling us to offer a range of project support services.
Following contract sign off, a period of detailed design will commence where we will:
- Support your business stakeholders to understand their requirements
- Work closely with your chosen automation partner to develop the solution to meet the business needs
- Ensure that all systems are designed so that they interface together and align with the operation and infrastructure
This process will encompass both the physical hardware, software development, and integration with wider systems. The involvement of key business teams such as Operations, IT and Maintenance is essential to ensure that all aspects are considered.
We will work with you to support your teams through the following phases:
- System Testing
To achieve a successful Go-live, a robust testing strategy needs to be implemented. Our experience of managing system implementations means we have a blueprint that leaves no stone unturned. The correct testing strategy will avoid the dreaded service level dip that is sometimes experienced when new systems ramp up to business critical volume.
We are experienced and capable of managing complex automation, logistics and supply chain projects. We manage the end to end process from the business requirements to project delivery.
We also partner with third party industry experts to ensure that we can deliver turnkey projects and minimise client risks.
Hatmill project managers are supported by colleagues from the wider Hatmill team. This allows us to bring a wide range of experience and expertise to help recognise risk early, respond to issues quickly, and provides you with access to other specialist resources should they be required.
Programme management on warehouse automation projects will typically involve managing the activity of a wide range of stakeholders:
Our Team of warehouse automation experts:
Experienced in implementing cutting-edge automated warehouse solutions, Andy will be working with our clients to leverage the use of new technologies such as Autonomous Mobile Robots to improve their operations.
An experienced solution design and applications engineer who has programme managed a wide range of automation projects. Joe started in materials handling integration at SDI group and Sovex before moving client side and has worked with a diverse mix of companies like Asda, Sainsburys, TKmaxx, Gap, WHSmiths, DHL, Clipper, Screwfix and Hachette.
An experienced programme manager with an understanding of a wide range of automation technologies, Tom works with clients and suppliers to develop concept designs and deliver the tendering and detailed design phases of complex automation projects.
An experienced supply chain professional who supports clients to develop a range of automated solutions, creating robust business cases and manages the work through to implementation.
Neil has supported clients in the design, procurement, implementation and optimisation of automated solutions including automated storage, picking and sortation systems across retail, consumer goods and parcel delivery sectors. He's worked with clients such as Nike, Diageo, Greggs, Yodel, J Sainsbury, Argos and BP Castrol in the UK, Mainland Europe, Far East and South America.
Terry has worked for almost forty years in Supply Chain and Logistics. Prior to joining Hatmill in 2019, he was responsible for developing the strategy for John Lewis's supply chain network and, subsequently, implementing the plan. This included two automated fulfilment facilities that supported John Lewis's vision of becoming the pre-eminent omni-channel retailer in the UK.
Sam is a mechanical engineer that has been working with companies to improve their processes as a Lean Six Sigma consultant. He is skilled in process engineering improvement tools and techniques.