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Cliff Holste

Supply Chain Digest
Material Handling Editor

Logistics News - Sorting It Out

Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

April 5, 2017

Sorting It Out : DC Automation – Adoption Problematic For Some Businesses

Complexity & Justification still Major Stumbling Blocks


After spending (2) days at ProMat 2017 (please see our video recaps Day 1 & Day 2), operational complexity, risk, and cost justification still appear to be among the major stumbling blocks for adoption of automation in the DC. No dough driven by E-Commerce, the big buzz at this year’s show is automated piece picking. While robotic piece picking technology is solid, operations managers struggle to understand how automated picking systems can be configured to adequately service customer order profiles and SKU mix that are frequently changing. In addition, it’s not clear what level of on onsite maintenance is needed and what the backup plan would be in the event of a system failure. So, considering this level of automation sophistication can raise a few critical on-going operational questions.

Holste Says...

...when considering deploying automation a well conceived backup plan, or temporary work around, that will keep your operation running while faults are being corrected, is essential.

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There is concern that once installed, depending on system complexity, there may be no way to quickly recover from unexpected system related deficiencies that can surface at anytime. There appears to be several factors that contribute to this concern:

  • vendor tendency towards excessive equipment, control, and software complexity
  • lack of on-hand technicians and IT personal at the DC, especially DCs with multiple shift operations
  • ill-advised experimentation with new methods and/or technologies
  • inadequate long-term planning and evaluation relative to options and alternatives
  • and, because “stuff” happens – the lack of a “what if” analysis and/or backup plan

An example of what drives some of this concern is how relatively sudden marketplace changes impact on DC operations. Order fulfillment systems installed just a few years ago are now required to process huge volumes of small lightweight products (cases, cartons, bags, cold sealed items, inner packs and eaches) a capability that conventional conveyor systems do not have. While new products are being introduced to address these requirements, current operations are being forced to either increase their percentage of non-conveyable items or provide specially designed sub-systems to handle them. 

In addition to the above there is the rising security fear of having interactive computerized systems infected and/or hacked into leading to a major shutdown. 

What this adds up to is that the DC automation picture is not as clear cut as we would like for it to be: 

- Automated equipment such as: cubing and dimensional/weigh-in-motion, label print and apply, case filling and sealing, sorting, palletizing, are a few examples of where automation will definitely increase throughput and productivity of repetitive operations. Standalone automated equipment of this type can operate in the typical DC environment reliability and efficiently without a high degree of system integration and dependency. This level of automation makes it much easier to accommodate changes in SKUs and order profiles while increasing DC performance. In addition, security risks are easier to manage and isolate. 

– It’s a fact that bolt-to-the-floor integrated systems can be costly and time consuming to reconfigure as customer order profiles change. System planners usually incorporate some growth capacity into the system for expansion purposes. This is sometimes described euphemistically as being a “scalable” solution. Therefore, all throughout the system planning stage the need for operational flexibility must be stressed. In addition, many DCs have at least one or two huge peak seasons per year when they may require a large pool of temporary labor. In this case, automation order fulfillment may be a benefit or a hindrance depending on how it is configured and applied. 

Failure of any part of an automated system operation can be difficult to recover from. Therefore, when considering deploying automation a well conceived backup plan, or temporary work around, that will keep your operation running while faults are being corrected, is essential. This is especially true if experimental or prototype equipment is deployed in the mainline system.  

Final Thoughts


On the brighter side, ProMat 2017 continues to do a great job of education industry managers as to the scope and potential that automation has for lowering operating cost and growth. No doubt, automation in the DC is here to stay and is the way of the future.

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