Whether it’s automating labor-intensive tasks, improving productivity or reducing human error, warehouse automation is the answer to a full spectrum of warehousing needs and challenges.
We’ll share everything you need to know about warehouse automation, from how it works to the top trends to leverage in 2024. Plus, we’ll introduce you to our advanced automated solutions at Modula that will help you reimagine your warehouse space and optimize your processes.
What Is Warehouse Automation?
Warehouse automation is the process of using technology to improve workplace productivity and safety, manage labor-intensive tasks and ultimately optimize warehouse operations.
Warehouse automation encompasses a range of technologies, including robots, computer systems and automated material handling equipment, to automate and optimize various warehouse processes and tasks.
There are several categories of warehouse automation, based on the level of technology implemented. These categories include:
- Basic warehouse automation: This category includes easy-to-use technology that can optimize manual warehouse tasks, such as receiving. For example, a conveyor belt that transports inventory from point A to point B.
- Warehouse system automation: This category takes advantage of warehouse software, machine learning and data analytics. For example, a warehouse management system that organizes orders, allowing warehouse operators to pick the same SKUs and speed up the order fulfillment process.
- Mechanized warehouse automation: This category uses robotics. For example, collaborative robots that pack orders.
- Advanced warehouse automation: This category leverages both warehouse robotics and automated warehouse solutions to fully replace manual processes. For example, a robotic forklift that utilizes cameras and advanced AI to independently navigate its way throughout a warehouse.
Check out the difference between a traditional and an automated warehouse in the video below:
Types of Warehouse Automation Technology
Different types of automation technologies can expedite your order fulfillment process and reduce manual tasks.
The most common warehouse automation technologies include:
- Goods-to-Person (G2P): With G2P, goods are delivered directly to warehouse operators through the use of carousels, vertical lift modules or conveyors. This type of warehouse automation increases efficiency, throughput and productivity while reducing warehouse congestion.
- Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS): Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are part of the goods-to-person technology. These high-tech solutions are used in warehouses to store items in a specific area and retrieve them when needed. AS/RS are supported by computers. and integrated with a warehouse management system (WMS) or warehouse execution system (WES), to determine which order should be retrieved from the inventory. This solution includes automated systems such as tote shuttles, mini-loaders, unit-loaders, horizontal carousels and vertical lift modules.
- Mobile robots (autonomous mobile robots and automatic guided vehicles): Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are sophisticated robots that use artificial intelligence and sensors to navigate their way throughout the warehouse independently and transport goods. On the other hand, automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) can transport goods over long distances, but require guidance from warehouse operators and rely on wires and reflective markers to function.
- Pick to light systems: Pick to light systems use colored LED lights to guide operators in the picking and sorting processes.
- Put to light systems: Put to light systems are “pick to light in reverse.” These systems guide warehouse operators during the replenishment phase, where lights direct operators to the correct location to sort or “put” items.
- Voice picking and tasking: Pick by voice or voice picking uses mobile headsets and speech recognition to direct warehouse pickers to the accurate picking location.
- Automated sortation systems: These systems identify goods on a conveyor system and redirect them to their designated warehouse locations using barcode readers, radio frequency identification (RFID) and sensors. This type of warehouse automation is used for receiving, picking and packing.
What Warehouse Processes Can be Automated?
Many warehouse processes can be automated with warehouse technologies to increase productivity, reduce human error and boost accuracy.
Warehouse processes that can be automated include:
- Inventory management
- Put away
- Data analysis
12 Warehouse Automation Technology Trends for 2024
From LED lights that indicate pick locations to intelligent robots that reduce operator travel time, here are 12 warehouse automation trends to leverage in 2024.
AI and ML Integration
Artificial intelligence (AI) is the ability of a computer or robot to perform tasks that are typically done by a human. AI boosts productivity and accuracy within the warehouse.
Machine learning (ML) is a branch of AI technology in which machines can forecast stock needs, plan inventory purchases and perform other tasks — for example, a robot that handles fragile products to prevent damages.
Collaborative robots, or cobots, are robots that are equipped with sensors and safety features that allow them to work with human workers, improving productivity and efficiency.
Typically, cobots are used to perform tasks such as order picking, packing and palletizing (storing products in a pallet).
IoT-Powered Smart Warehouses
Internet of Things (IoT) devices include sensors, RFID tags and wearable devices that track and manage inventory, monitor equipment and optimize supply chain operations.
IoT technologies boost efficiency, cut costs and increase productivity within the warehouse.
AR and VR for Warehouse Training
Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated environment that utilizes neural networks, machine learning technologies and a pose tracking system to immerse you in a virtual environment.
On the other hand, augmented reality (AR) combines the real world and a computer-generated environment to create an interactive experience.
You can integrate AR and VR technologies into your warehouse training program to introduce processes and improve employee productivity and safety.
For example, you can utilize a 360 VR headset to introduce your employees to the order fulfillment process before they actually step foot into your warehouse.
Warehouse Management Systems
Warehouse management systems (WMS) are scalable software applications that manage inventory and day-to-day warehouse operations, such as tracking orders, shipping and delivery.
Advances in warehouse management systems provide real-time data for better decision-making and improved efficiency.
Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)
Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are powered by computer systems to automatically store and retrieve goods in a warehouse with optimal accuracy and speed.
These solutions are integrated with a warehouse management system (WMS) or warehouse execution system (WES), to determine which orders should be retrieved from the inventory.
There are seven types of AS/RS:
- Unit-Load AS/RS
- Mini-Load AS/RS
- Vertical Carousel-based AS/RS
- Horizontal Carousel-based AS/RS
- Vertical Lift Module AS/RS
- Shuttle- and Bot-based AS/RS
- Micro-Load (Stocker)
Voice picking is a type of warehouse automation technology that utilizes voice recognition and commands to boost picking accuracy and efficiency by freeing employees’ hands at work.
In voice picking, a warehouse operator wears a headset to hear voice commands and prompts that lead them to the picking location.
Wearables are devices worn by warehouse operators that are equipped with sensors and cameras that allow employees to track inventory and access picking data in real-time.
These solutions include devices such as GPS-tracking bracelets, smart watches and finger-trigger gloves.
Automated Guided Vehicles & Autonomous Mobile Robots
Automated guided vehicles are vehicles that can travel throughout your warehouse with the help of pre-defined routes and a warehouse operator.
On the other hand, autonomous mobile robots are more sophisticated robots that can travel throughout your warehouse without human intervention thanks to sensors, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
Both AGVs and AMRs transport goods within a warehouse to improve efficiency and increase workplace safety.
Warehouse drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are aerial robots that capture images of your inventory and retrieve products, to help with inventory management and stock replenishment.
Dones are equipped with cameras and sensors to help gather data. They can be controlled by warehouse operators or programmed to fly autonomously.
Predictive maintenance is a warehouse maintenance strategy that utilizes data collected by a software system. This strategy utilizes data from sensors and other sources to detect patterns and anomalies that indicate potential equipment failure.
This data is used to create a predictive model that can identify when maintenance is likely to be required. This allows you to schedule maintenance at a time that is most convenient, reducing costly downtime and increasing equipment lifespan.
Predictive maintenance can be applied to a wide range of equipment, including machinery, vehicles and production lines.
Warehouse sustainability is an approach to incorporating low-impact environmental practices and design techniques to minimize energy consumption and reduce — or even eliminate — waste production.
Warehouses consume a lot of energy to run equipment and HVAC systems. In fact, a non-refrigerated warehouse in the United States consumes around 6.1 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per square foot each year.
As companies face increasing pressure from consumers, regulators and stakeholders to reduce their environmental impact, sustainability will continue to be an important consideration for 2024
Warehouse sustainability best practices include using LED lights and solar panels to harness renewable energy sources and decrease the facility’s carbon footprint.
This trend is likely to drive the adoption of new technologies and practices, such as the use of renewable energy resources and automated material handling systems to optimize their use of resources and minimize waste.
Benefits of Warehouse Automation
Warehouse automation systems can optimize different warehouse processes, such as receiving, returns, picking, sorting and shipping.
From increasing productivity to taking advantage of your existing warehouse space, here are seven key benefits you can look forward to when implementing automation.
Warehouse automation systems can help businesses eliminate cumbersome tasks by integrating advanced software, robotics and data analytics, leading to faster order fulfillment.
In addition, warehouse operators can focus on more pressing tasks, such as conducting quality checks and strategizing inventory placement.
Optimize Warehouse Space
While moving into a bigger warehouse to store a larger inventory may be an option for some, investing in smart storage solutions, like vertical lift module, can free up as much as 90% of your current warehouse space, allowing you to maximize your existing space.
As global retail eCommerce sales are expected to reach $7.4 trillion by 2025, retail warehouses specifically can greatly benefit from automation.
Increase Employee Safety
A recent study found that overexertion, falls and getting struck by an object were the top disabling workplace accidents in 2022, respectively.
Warehouse automation systems can help prevent workplace injuries in several ways: they handle the heavy lifting, bring items directly to employees and perform tasks that may be hazardous for employees.
Better Inventory Control and Visibility
Manual inventory management is time consuming and prone to human error, as it relies on manual data entry and physical counts which can be influenced by oversight or fatigue.
Warehouse automation systems, such as WMS, can help you track your stock levels and goods movement, thanks to advanced inventory tracking.
A warehouse management system also provides inventory visibility down to a specific tray or item.
Boost Warehouse Throughput
A 2021 survey found that more than 40% of consumers in the United States expected their online packages to be delivered within two to three days of ordering, while 27% said that they hoped to receive their deliveries within the same day of ordering.
Warehouse automation systems can help boost warehouse throughput, improve productivity and increase customer retention by delivering accurate purchase items within the expected delivery time.
Optimize the Picking Process
A recent industry report found that 25% of customers return items they purchased online because they received the wrong item.
Mispicks are costly errors that occur when an employee picks the wrong item or quantity of items, fails to pack an item or mislabels an order.
Warehouse automation systems can help reduce the human error associated with mispicks, to ensure the correct items are picked, packed and sent to the correct customer.
Boost Inventory Security
Warehouse theft is at an all-time high. This alarming trend emphasizes the need for enhanced security measures to safeguard your assets and ensure the integrity of your supply chain.
Warehouse automation systems, such as RFID location tracking, IoT security devices and motion detection sensors, can help you get immediate alerts of unauthorized access and monitor movements within your warehouse — especially during off-hours — to reduce potential theft.
When to Automate Your Warehouse
Whether you’re in the early stages of optimizing your warehouse, or you’re experiencing some difficulties and looking to streamline operations, warehouse automation can be the answer you’re looking for.
A few reasons to consider automating your warehouse include:
- Your order volume is consistently growing and becoming difficult to manage manually
- Your manual processes are causing inefficiencies and errors, such as mispicks
- Your inventory counts are inaccurate
- You are running out of storage space for your inventory
- You are handling multiple suppliers, SKUs or distribution channels
- You want to increase workplace safety
- You want to increase productivity
- You want to implement a lean warehousing approach
- You want to implement predictive maintenance for your warehouse systems
- You are not meeting your warehouse KPIs, such as put away accuracy or inventory turnover rate
- You want to reduce labor costs
How to Automate Your Warehouse Step-by-Step
We’ve the process in your warehouse that can be automated, the benefits of automation and the top technologies for warehouse automation in 2024.
What’s left? Implementation. Here’s how to automate your warehouse, step-by-step:
- Assess your current processes: Evaluate your current warehouse processes, including receiving, storing, picking, packing and shipping. Identify areas where automation can bring improvements. Do you need to optimize manual data entry and minimize human errors? Or, do you need to improve picking accuracy? Identify the type of warehouse automation that aligns with your goals and implement the solutions.
- Define your goals and requirements: Identify the specific goals and requirements you want to achieve through automation, such as improving accuracy and efficiency or gaining complete visibility over your inventory.
- Research: Research and compare different types of technologies and solutions. For example, autonomous mobile robots and robot arms for the picking process and warehouse management systems for inventory management.
- Develop a plan and budget: Develop a comprehensive implementation plan and budget for the automation solutions, including resources required, timeline and estimated costs.
- Train employees: Once your automated solutions are in place, train your employees on new technology and processes to reduce the risk of workplace accidents and maximize the solution’s performance.
Warehouse Automation Best Practices
Warehouse automation best practices include integrating advanced technologies and strategies to optimize operations and enhance overall efficiency.
Here are seven best practices to consider:
Increase Employee Safety
Consider factors like order volume, storage capacity and product variety. By tailoring the system to your specific requirements, you can optimize efficiency, reduce unnecessary expenses and achieve a faster return on investment.
Invest in Scalable Solutions
Opt for systems that can adapt and scale to larger order volumes and SKUs with irregular shapes, such as vertical lift modules. VLMs can fit different types of inventory, ensuring flexibility in your warehouse automation investments.
Rethink Your Warehouse Design
A strategic warehouse design can help reduce travel time for mobile robots and optimize storage space utilization. Evaluate your warehouse design to ensure that it supports your workflows and complements your automation systems.
For example, implement wide and clutter-free aisles to facilitate smoother movement for autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
Optimize the Receiving Process
As receiving is the first stage in the order fulfillment process, optimizing this step can help prevent potential bottlenecks, set the tone for organized inventory management and enhance overall warehouse productivity.
To optimize the receiving process, incorporate a WMS to gather data, such as product dimensions, batch numbers, expiration dates and supplier information. Then, use your WMS to decide your inventory’s handling, storage and placement.
Integrate a Warehouse Management System
A warehouse management system optimizes inventory tracking, order fulfillment and overall warehouse operations, enhancing efficiency and accuracy.
When choosing your WMS, look for one that aligns with your warehouse needs, offers scalability and seamlessly integrates with other systems or technologies you have in place, such as your Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software.
Automate Cycle Counts
Perform continuous cycle counts to track your inventory levels against your inventory record.
Cycle counting is the process of counting your inventory — every month or quarter — rather than conducting a complete inventory count all at once.
To automate your cycle counts, utilize advanced software that integrates with your WMS and automated data collection tools like barcode scanners or RFID systems.
Train Your Warehouse Employees
Train your employees on how to use warehouse automation to boost their confidence and safety and ensure they maximize the potential of these tools.
To educate your employees on how to maximize automated solutions:
- Perform demonstrations and hands-on exercises to help your employees familiarize themselves with equipment and systems in a controlled setting
- Ensure all workers are trained in safety protocols, the use of safety equipment and emergency procedures
- Pair new hires with experienced employees
- Regularly evaluate employee performance, offer constructive feedback and identify areas for further training
Automated Warehouse Solutions at Modula
Modula is the leading provider of modern storage solutions and inventory management systems. We reimagine your warehouse operations through our automated solutions, which allow you to:
- Optimize your warehouse space
- Perform high-speed and accurate order fulfillment
- Increase picking accuracy to up to 99%
Modula Vertical Lift Modules
With our vertical lift modules (VLMs), you can optimize your warehouse space using the ceiling height and ease operational efforts by delivering items to your employees at an ergonomic retrieval height.
Choose from our three vertical lift modules:
- Modula Lift: Utilizes 9,050 square feet of traditional storage in only 150 square feet
- Modula Slim: Requires only 32.29 square feet of floor space
- Modula OnePick: Fully automated with no employee supervision needed
Modula Horizontal Carousels
We’ve walked you through vertical solutions, but what if your warehouse has low ceilings?
Our Modula Horizontal Carousel (HC) is ideal for warehouses where ceiling height is limited.
In addition to taking advantage of your warehouse width, our horizontal solution enables fast and accurate order fulfillment, thanks to:
- Picking accuracy of up to 99%
- Picking rates of up to 550 lines per hour for each worker
- Single or dual three-horsepower drives to move more goods quickly
Modula Order Picking Solutions
Say goodbye to tedious manual picking processes. Our Modula order picking solutions are intuitive and easy to implement for quick and efficient order fulfillment.
Our order picking solutions allow you to:
- Improve picking accuracy thanks to visual picking aids such as LED bars
- Increase picking speed by reducing the need to search for items in the warehouse
- Improve inventory management by providing an in-depth view of your existing and forecasted inventory
4. Modula Warehouse Management Systems
Modula Warehouse management system (WMS) is the leading intuitive software solution that provides visibility into your entire inventory. It is built to operate Modula’s automated storage and retrieval solutions. If you own a traditional warehouse, our WMS can act as a stand-alone software.
As one of the most intuitive and next-level software solutions on the market, Modula WMS seamlessly integrates with almost all DMS and ERP systems, to enable seamless inventory and order management.
Our Modula WMS allows you to:
- Manage and track individual goods
- Monitor orders, including order processing, shipping and delivery
- Manage and track the movement and location of inventory within your warehouse
- Assign tasks to warehouse operators, monitor user activity, and set access levels and permissions
- Monitor system performance
- Generate reports and alerts
- Analyze analytics
- Integrate and share data with other systems through file import/export or data entry
5. Modula Cloud
Redefine remote warehouse management and support with Modula Cloud.
Modula Cloud is a support, remote management, and analytics platform that gathers analytical data from your automated storage and retrieval systems, regardless of their location.
The easy-to-use online portal allows you to securely manage and monitor your warehouse operations from any device, no matter where you are in the world.
Modula Cloud offers:
- Remote support, management and monitoring of your Modula storage systems
- Predictive maintenance, which allows you to monitor storage unit status in real time
- Real-time notifications and updates
- 24/7 supervision
Warehouse automation is a scalable solution that allows warehouses to fulfill orders and meet increasing consumer demands.
At Modula, our solutions range from horizontal and vertical carousels to order picking solutions and more. Fulfill more orders and meet rising consumer demands in 2024 with our advanced automated solutions.