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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.

May 31, 2017

Sorting It Out : What Is The Correct Level Of DC Automation?

Shippers Want to Know if the “New Wave” of Automation Technologies is Right for Them


Over the past few years of reporting on the rapid rise of automation in the DC it has become clear that for most shippers the proper way to approach automation is not by asking, - “Is automation right for my business” but rather, the focus should be - “What is the correct level of automation”? “How is it justified” and “How can it be phased-in”?

While it may be easy to say what not to do, it is much more difficult to make a simple statement about what should be done. This is especially true when one thoroughly assesses today's vast array of immerging automation technologies and recognizes that there is no common solution from a pure functional perspective, especially when considering that no two logistics operations are alike. The approach and technology best suited for an individual business will depend on specific processing requirements and will most likely be a blend of technologies integrated into an overall system solution.

Holste Says...

The approach and technology best suited for an individual business will depend on specific processing requirements and will most likely be a blend of technologies integrated into an overall system solution.

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Having said that, for shippers that are (or who want to be) top performers, the introduction of automation in the DC should be a primary directive.

It appears that a common misconception is that you have to have a large operation to justify automation. Going back a few years when automation in the DC was just being introduced that was probably true. Fast forward to today and the reality is that any company picking and shipping even a moderate amount is a candidate for some level of automation. This is true because many of the current technologies being offered are modular and standalone. As such, shippers can take a more scalable approach to automation adding equipment like automatic label print and apply, weigh in motion, picking robots, and Automatic Guided Vehicles, gradually as their business grows. 

For example a company might start by installing a warehouse management system (WMS) with radio frequency (RF) receiving and putaway that can direct people where to put product, when to retrieve it, and to direct case pick to build customer specific pallet loads (see: “Product Sequencing – The Smart Way to Build Mixed SKU Loads”). Later on they might consider adding a robotic piece picking system such as can be seen at

Receiving and shipping volume is not the only driver of automation. The opportunity may be even greater when a business is running two shifts a day, or frequently operating extended shifts. But, perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome is in one’s ability to accept unfamiliar system approaches. The challenge is to understand that in order to obtain cost effective benefits from automation, entirely new technologies and methods are available and need to be considered.  

Final Thoughts

When it comes to DC automation, there are no easy answers. Diverse technologies and solutions can lead to different results. The final solution should be carefully aligned with your company’s strategic business planning objectives.

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