Innovation in warehouse automation: Planning for peak
By Aaron Scott, Business Unit Director at Wincanton

At Wincanton, we manage the logistics supply chains of some of the UK’s biggest retailers. This means we’ve seen first-hand how changing consumer behaviours are impacting upon periods of peak demand like Christmas – the festive season now starts even earlier in the year and the emergence of new set-piece shopping events like Black Friday are re-writing the rule book on peak planning.

As a result, now more than ever, there’s a strategic imperative to shift goods quickly and efficiently during these busy times. And the stakes are high – with competition for each and every pound spent getting fiercer every year, retailers can ill afford to let the side down when it comes to fulfilling orders.

Thankfully, in recent years we’ve seen the emergence of new, digitally-enabled and connected warehouse automation systems. These innovative technologies are helping retailers address the challenges of peak by providing greater visibility of stock flows and speeding up the whole distribution process.

Of course, automative technologies are not new to the warehouse and at Wincanton, we’ve been operating effective automated solutions for over 20 years. What has changed is the ‘smart’ nature of the latest innovations. These often combine a variety of hardware and software solutions – from automated conveyors through to smart sensors, industrial robots, telematics and mobile applications.

The net effect is that efficiency, service reliability, safety and productivity all have the potential to improve across the board as innovations in picking, packing, and shipping processes become more advanced.

At the site of one of our customers, thanks to a combination of robotics, conveyors and smart software, over 90% of the 88 million cases we help them dispatch each year are untouched by human hands. Besides driving huge efficiency gains and improved levels of responsiveness during busy periods, this means the occupational health risks associated with manual handling tasks are also minimised.

This is important as, according to the government’s Health and Safety Executive, musculoskeletal disorders caused by manual handling (including lower back pain and neck pain) account for more than 40% of reported ‘over-3-day’ injuries in warehouses.

But it’s not just the warehouse floor that’s reaping the benefits of new innovations – stock auditing and tracking practices can now be a painless exercise, devoid of wasteful paper and time-consuming administration. Everything can be monitored in real-time and recorded automatically – there’s no need to manually scan a barcode to register a case; smart sensors do this for you. Improvements to operational efficiency and financial management can therefore extend across a business.

Ultimately, peaks in customer demand are driving new ways of working across the sector. When you consider the wider evolution of consumer behaviours – including the growing use of online shopping and home delivery – it’s easy to see why many retailers now see automated warehouse solutions as vital to the future success of their business.

However, it goes without saying that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to designing and implementing what can be very complex automated systems. What works for one business can often not work at all for another. Design has to be informed by capacity, individual business challenges and strategies. It can also be hard for a business to keep on top of the latest developments in automotive technology and how they might be integrated within existing systems.

Retailers are increasingly working with their third-party logistics providers (3PLs) and suppliers to cherry-pick the best elements of technology and provide the best possible service for their customers and keep costs down. By working together to build new automative systems into a business, all parties can look forward to a very merry Christmas.

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