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Warehouse automation – what does it mean?

What is warehouse automation?
This term can be used to describe the process of automating the storage and distribution of goods in a warehouse, using robots and centrally managed computer systems.

It is a term that we believe will become more important over time as companies start to focus more on systems rather than people.

The latest revolution
Many warehouses still do not have fully automated systems but rely on pallet trucks and conveyor belts which need human involvement to be operated. However, times are changing and the use of robots in the materials handling and logistics industry is becoming increasingly popular.

Warehouses are now becoming more automated, which could mean that in the future warehouses will have less human contact – or possibly even none at all. Is this the industrial revolution of the 21st century?

Top companies like Amazon, IKEA and Zappos make good use of automated warehouse systems to keep their customers happy with easy and swift delivery packages. This is extremely cost-efficient for these top companies (assuming you have the initial capital) as well as time saving because it means that they do not have to spend considerable time employing and training staff to do jobs that the robots can handle.

Automation systems
The most popular and one of the most advanced robotics system at the moment is the Kiva robot, which has recently been bought over by Amazon for $775 million dollars.

These robotics systems have taken over the Amazon warehouses to allow for swift packaging and delivery services. The Kiva system aimed to reinvent the warehouse business, and it is doing just that. The robots work faster and more accurately than the average human being. This system allows the orders to be brought to the warehouse operator rather than having them go through the hassle of looking for the goods to be packed, as the robot finds the goods wherever they are in the warehouse.

There is a central computer to keep track of the location of each robot and each product. It acts as the dispatcher and the traffic controller at the same time. It’s a bit like real-life simulation game.

The system also keeps track of how items are stored in the warehouse. They are quite organised in the way that more popular items are stored towards the front of the packing stations and the less popular items are stored towards the back. Barcode stickers are read using in-built cameras. These robots work non-stop until they need a battery charge (or a short “nap”).

Here’s a short video to show you how the Kiva Systems work in the Amazon warehouse http://vimeo.com/113374910 . This is what really happens when you order a new product from Amazon, before it is delivered to your home.
Other warehouse automation systems include: Power Automation Systems, Keymas, Egemin, SSI Schafer and Vanderlande.

What do these systems mean in warehousing?
These robotic systems pose a lot of advantages for the materials handling and logistics industry. Sorting and packaging have now been made easier, and health and safety issues in the warehouses will be reduced. These systems may also be cost-efficient in the long run.

However, the disadvantage is almost certainly unemployment. It means a lot of people will be out of jobs, or will not be able to acquire jobs in warehouses as these automation systems are in place. The disadvantages for the remaining employees could be that they are doing less dynamic, varied jobs as they become more subservient to the computer system.

What is the impact of automation?
I suppose the key question to ask is: “If robots can improve the business, what is the human cost?” It is definitely a question to be pondered upon. Amazon says that they have hired more people since they implemented Kiva, so the loss of jobs will not happen anytime soon hopefully. However, Amazon haven’t said whether that is a direct result of the Kiva system – as we know, correlation and causation aren’t the same thing.

Will forklift hire companies acquire automated systems in the near future? As we expand and grow this is something that we should be looking into and considering at the very least. Is it worth the potential human cost? Do companies of a particular size lose their essence if they embrace automation? These are issues we should be talking about as we modernise, because modernisation in our industry is unavoidable.

This article has been brought to you by Hiremech, specialists in forklift hire in London.

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