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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.

August 2, 2017

DC Automation – Utilizing Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR) Technologies Lowers Project Cost & Risk

Automation Adoption Rate for Small to Mid-size Businesses Slow but Steady Increasing


As we discussed last week (see “Understanding Key Drivers For DC Automation”) it is generally understood that automation has its inherent business and operational advantages. Still, many small to mid-size business managers fear that once installed, depending on system complexity, there may be no quick/easy way to correct system design deficiencies that are likely to surface at some point. They struggle to understand how a bolt-to-the-floor order fulfillment system can be designed to adequately service customer ordering profiles that are constantly changing.

Another contributing factor is that vendors are generally not willing to guarantee that the deployment of their automated equipment and/or system solution will equate to higher levels of DC performance. This is because simply designing an automated process as a tool for increased throughput and/or productivity is not enough. This tool must be properly and safely applied. It must be properly integrated into the overall operation. Operators must be taught to understand its proper use. They must be taught to have faith in its ability; not to fear or suspect it. It must be properly managed. And above all, it must be continuously updated and maintained. These are issues that are, for the most part, buyer responsibilities.

Given that DC operations are inherently complex, the central question then appears to be - are automated processes flexible and adaptable enough to compete with conventional mechanized processes? We are going to try to avoid the “it depends” response by addressing both sides of the issue.

Holste Says...

...Simply designing an automated process as a tool for increased throughput and/or productivity is not enough.

What do you say?

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Before even considering DC automation, a shipper should evaluate all core operational areas such as, receiving, put-away, picking, value-added services, order consolidation and shipping to determine how they can be simplified and streamlined. Go beyond the “low hanging fruit” stage, look for functional improvements in slotting, order batching, pick path routing, and workflow simplification. Often these types of incremental upgrades when taken together can yield as much as 10% to 20% improvement in overall productivity, and can be realized quickly with a relatively small initial investment. After these upgrades have been made the Pros & Cons of automation can be considered.


Automated equipment/systems such as weigh-in-motion, label print and apply, case filling and sealing, sorting, palletizing, and the newer generation of AGVs and picking robotics, are examples of where automation will definitely increase throughput and productivity while providing some level of operational flexibility. This is true because 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 characteristic makes it much easier to accommodate changes in SKUs and order profiles. Another desirable characteristic of automation is that it improves the workplace by reducing the stress associated with repetitive tasks.


Because all automated equipment has a maximum production rate/speed, there can be operational and flexibility issues relative to incremental capacity. Whereas, in manual operations often labor can be moved and adjusted to accommodate peak volume periods, with automated processes once the maximum throughput capacity is reached the options are often limited to working extended hours or adding more equipment (which may sit idle during slow/normal volume periods). This is sometimes described euphemistically as being a “scalable” solution. 

It’s a fact that highly automated bolt-to-the-floor systems can be difficult to reconfigure once installed. If your business is in anyway fashion orientated, then you know that year-to-year changes in products, customer order profiles, and value added services are normal and to be expected. Therefore, all throughout the system planning stage the need for operational flexibility must be stressed. In addition, many shippers 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 may be a benefit or a hindrance depending on how it is configured and applied.

Based on the above, it is highly recommended that before committing to DC system changes that impact on business operations, first invest in an independent computerizes graphic simulation of the proposed system. This will provide the opportunity to test and prove the system new design and operation under a variety of conditions and obtain a clear understanding of its performance capabilities. In addition, such a simulation can greatly reduce the possibility of over or under sizing the system – both of which are potentially costly mistakes.

Dan Gilmore and I reported on this developing technology in our ProMat 2017 Day 2 video clip which you can review here. Emulate3D models can be viewed, explored, and discussed using a variety of new technologies that fall into two categories; Augmented Reality (AR), and Virtual Reality (VR).

VR systems immerse users in a computer generated world where they can navigate and interact, viewing complex operations in a clear and convincing way. In VR systems which can connect to live models, this level of interaction can alter the way the modeled system behaves, which enhances the feeling of really "being there". Smartphone-based VR systems can show recordings of operating models but nonetheless include more features than video, as the camera position within the model can be altered by the user.

AR systems incorporate models into the real world by locating them precisely with respect to the real environment, giving the impression of solidity as viewers move around them. Because AR systems include the real environment, they offer great possibilities for demonstrating new solutions to others. Several viewers can move around and interact with the running model, while the dialogue between them continues.

For more information on Emulate3D go to

Final Thoughts

Enjoying all the benefits automation has to offer requires being ready to respond and adapt to business changes that may impact on system operations. The key to having a successful automation project includes detail analysis and thoughtful planning.

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