Debunking Myths and Misconceptions About Automated Storage Solutions


Worried about the implications of automating their processes, many warehouse and factory managers continue to use static storage solutions instead of automated alternatives, such as vertical lift modules. We spoke with Modula’s VP of Sales, Rick Havener, about how myths and misconceptions surrounding automation can hold back companies from adapting to the new era of modern manufacturing:

For clients, one of the main concerns is that automated storage solutions will not offer their desired amount of flexibility or space for products due to their size or varied shape. In your experience, what types of products can fit into a vertical lift system? How flexible can the system really be?

In today’s world of automated storage systems, Modula’s vertical ift module (VLM) line is one of the most dynamic and flexible solutions on the market. I’ve seen a wide range of product sizes and weights stored in this type of unit. The unit utilizes a height detection system that measures the tallest item on the tray every time it stores a tray in the system, which allows for the densest storage location to be determined in real time. The dynamic nature of the system allows for shelves to be stored and optimized on one-inchcenters, providing the best cubic utilization possible.

With static solutions, you are restricted with fixed shelf centers,which either waste space or become restrictive for taller products. Modula’s VLM units monitor the weight of each tray to ensure they are properly loaded and compare weight distribution across the entire unit. Static solutions cannot provide this level of visibility. In terms of size, products stored in a VLM can range from paper thin to as tall as 28 inches and all dimensions in between.

Another common misconception is that automated storage solutions are difficult and expensive to install. This is understandable, as most facilities lean away from costly projects that might cause delays in their production. When vertical lift systems are being installed, are clients required to shut down their operations during the process? How long does it take to complete installations?         

Installation processes require a fair amount of time to be installed, but usually take the same amount of time as that of a static solution. However, in my experience, automated solutions have been less intrusive to client operations. Static solutions take up much more space during installation and cause disruptions within the operating areas. In comparison, Modula VLMs take up a small footprint and require a fraction of the space. Installation time for Modula’s automated solutions takes about five days per unit, so it depends on how many units are being installed. Upon completion, the owner must load the system with their parts. This typically doesn’t take much time because it is done at the unit delivery window, where tray levels are automatically brought to the operator. In many static solutions, the operator needs to walk up and down aisles to stock all parts into the shelves or drawers.

Software integration is also very easy since Modula’s software can handle picks from all sides of the unit, or in remote static areas that might be part of the overall picking process. In most cases, installation can be done without interference with ongoing warehouse operations. For clients who have more concerns about potential disruption, our team can create unique transition plans to minimize any impact the installation process might have during production.

Is it true that the integration and installation of automated storage solutions may not fit or be compatible with the existing software management? Can the software used within Modula’s VLMs be compatible with a client’s existing inventory management software?

Absolutely. We offer a full suite of software solutions for clients to choose from, depending on what works best with their current inventory management system,whether it is a standalone system utilizing our warehouse management systeme (WMS) software, or a fully interfaced version to the existing management system. We develop and maintain our own software, which gives us complete control over its development and functionality. Interfacing can be done through shared SQL tables or even through SAP iDocs, if required. It is our goal to keep the interfaces as simple and seamless as possible so that all inventory information flows easily through the system. Our software only enhances the existing information by handling all picking activity at the machine level and communicating information back to the host system for real-time updates.

Automated storage solutions are often perceived to be costly, with a long return on investment (ROI). Are Modula’s vertical lift modules more expensive than traditional static and/or manual solutions? How long does it take to secure ROI? Are these solutions economical only in large installations?    

I think that most clients would be surprised by how affordable this level of automation really is for them. In most cases when people think about automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), they envision a big rack supported by mini and unit load-type cranes. These are very large AS/RS systems, and can be a much bigger investment in both dollars and time,but this isn’t the case with vertical lift module (VLM) solutions. We see an ROI returned anywhere from six to 18 months, depending on the overall size of the project and the allowable parameters used in the ROI. In terms of price, individual VLMs range from $60,000 to $120,000 depending on the overall size and selected options. These units only take about four to fivedays to be fully installed, and one week to transfer all of the products into the units to have them fully operational. Although the overall dollar investment for a static solution might be less, the implementation time is just as long and does not provide the amount of benefits that the automated solutions bring in the end. These advantages include space savings, productivity increase, accuracy improvements and better ergonomics to name a few. This level of technology is worth the investment, for any client.

Automated storage solutions raise many concerns about their impact on the labor force. How have you seen automated solutions impacting the workforce? Do employees need special training to properly use automated storage solutions?

I haven’t heard of negative impacts on the labor forces of the clients we work with. I’ve actually heard the exact opposite. As for employee training, all automated systems require a learning process, but this is required of all facilities where new employees need to understand where products are located on a bunch of shelves or drawers. In the case of an automated VLM, operators learn how to operate the automated interface,which is simple and user-friendly. The unit includes a color touchscreen controller that allows for safe and speedy product picking. We find that employee retention is much greater because they’re not required to walk up and down aisles or climb up and down stairs or ladders all day. Plus, all of the reaching and bending found in static solutions is eliminated completely. Finally, when the operator is fully trained, you will find that you can get more picking per operator per hour. This allows clients to either do the same picking with fewer people or do more picking with the same number of people.  

This video shows how Modula’s vertical lift modules operate.