Agriculture equipment companies revamp their operations to harvest productivity and profits
While COVID-19 is hurting farmers and agriculture everywhere, the demand for food is not going to decrease. In fact, it will increase. That’s due to growing populations worldwide and a lack of new arable land. Consequently, production and efficiencies must increase to keep pace with demand.
Agricultural equipment and technology will play a critical role in helping meet demand and will do so indefinitely. Forward-looking American agricultural manufacturers, distributors, suppliers, and dealers will respond by expanding storage capacities, reducing inefficiencies, and improving materials handling speed and responsiveness. Doing so, they enhance productivity and protect profits. Failing to do so, they risk losing their competitive advantages and, ultimately, their customers.
One of the key areas in which these inefficiencies are evident is in outdated warehouse operations. A sizable number of organizations dealing in Ag equipment use the traditional method of storing parts on static shelves in warehouses, relying on manual processes. That is, the parts have to be gathered for shipment by workers who scurry around the warehouse, grab the needed parts, and then ship them. This is inherently inefficient and potentially harmful. Workers waste time traversing aisles in a sprawling warehouse, then strain their bodies reaching up or stooping down to retrieve parts.
Automated storage and retrieval eliminates the inefficiencies
These problems can be resolved with an automated storage and retrieval system. For example, vertical lift modules (VLMs) contain items in dense and space-efficient towers. With the reduced footprint of a VLM compared to traditional warehouse shelving systems, warehouses can cut down on needed floor space by up to 90%. Easy-to-use touchscreens allow a worker to enter the item to be retrieved, like a giant vending machine, and the VLM delivers it in an ergonomic way that protects workers from injury.
It takes less than 30 seconds to bring the part to the worker. And with aids such as pick-to-light and laser-guided pointers helping ensure the worker retrieves the proper part, accuracy — as well as speed of throughput — increases dramatically. The machines are designed both to ensure the worker doesn’t contact the machine’s operating mechanisms during retrieval and to keep the parts themselves secure and protected from unauthorized users.
When combined with warehouse management software that automatically tracks inventory and optimizes logistics, a VLM greatly enhances productivity and accuracy, improves performance, and helps managers avoid overbuying or underbuying parts.
The consequences of a mispicked part
To illustrate one element of the importance of making the shift to an automated system, let’s look at what unfolds when a warehouse picks and ships the wrong part. Farmers, of course, depend on being out in their fields, especially during the critical planting and harvesting periods in which every hour is critical. Anything that disrupts their plans, such as a broken vehicle or blade, can be costly. A mispicked part can have such an effect, delaying repairs as the wrong part is returned and a new one sent out. The delay is costly to the farmer, who’s on the tight schedule the season demands. It also can damage the reputation of the dealer on which the farmer depends to stay productive when it matters most.
Traditional warehouses exacerbate this risk due to their inefficiencies and error-prone manual processes in which tracking inventory sometimes is a little better than guesswork. Even with diligent manual tracking, counts are completed periodically instead of continuously. Consequently, a manager doesn’t have a real-time understanding of stock levels. If inventory has been taken at 9 a.m., a manager might not know at 3 p.m. if a part is still in stock or not. Additionally, relying on humans to both retrieve items and report on the status of a given item is prone to errors at best.
In peak season when parts orders for repairs are coming in with urgency, the organization that can respond quickly and efficiently wins. The one that stumbles along and causes delays eventually pays the price.
The answer: A smart warehouse, equipped with VLMs and a WMS
By using a VLM, you take a major step toward improving efficiencies and tracking the flow of parts properly. A VLM can store virtually all the items that are typically found in an Ag parts warehouse used to maintain combines, tractors, harvesters, and the like. And it doesn’t matter where the parts are stored—the machine retrieves the appropriate internal tray and delivers them to the operator quickly and accurately. Parts that are commonly ordered together can be placed near each other in the same tray in the VLM, further increasing productivity.
When a warehouse worker enters the names or numbers of the parts, the VLM retrieves the internal tray storing the items, delivers it to the worker, and then guides the worker to withdraw them from the appropriate compartment using laser pointers and LED indicator systems. This ensures accurate picks—not the mispicks that are common with manual systems.
The critical task of inventory tracking is handled by connecting the VLM to the warehouse management software (WMS). This combination means that managers can track the status of all parts in a warehouse. Any time a part is removed from the VLM or replenished into it, the system records that activity.
As a result, there’s no worry about replenishing stock with too many parts, failing to order those that are too low or replacing depleted ones. The warehouse manager doesn’t need to send workers on hunts around the warehouse to see if parts are available or schedule weekly or daily manual inventory counts.
The benefits to warehouse workers
There are significant benefits for employees. Chief among them is that a VLM helps workers avoid the stress and strains associated with typical warehouse work. Often parts are stacked high above them or near the floor, and pulling from their places all day can wear down a worker. With a VLM, the parts come to them—they don’t have to retrieve the parts.
The simplified workflow of not having to perform regular inventory inspections, remembering to indicate when a part has been removed or restocked, dramatically reduces mental strain on workers while increasing productivity.
And because workers aren’t walking past each other in narrow aisles all day but rather staying put in front of their VLM, they’re able to adhere to the social distancing requirements that are now part of protecting worker safety. With these benefits, a warehouse can avoid the high turnover rates that are common in the industry.
A smart move in anticipation of the growth to come
The world may have learned it can get along without a lot of things in the face of the pandemic. But it can’t get along without food. In the short term, the disruption caused by the pandemic has resulted in a breakdown between fields and consumers. But this is temporary— the demand will return.
Smart agriculture equipment organizations are taking steps now to be ready for the future. They know the important role they play in ensuring a continuous food supply to the world. They know that their businesses must operate at peak efficiency to stay competitive and their employees should feel safe and secure in their work.