“Touch-less” Warehousing… a step closer to “Lights-off” Warehousing
by Amit Mehendale, Head of Marketing, Armstrong m.b.p. ltd.
The idea of a Lights-off warehouse has left no stone unturned for quite some time now. Until yesterday, it seemed dramatically futuristic. Almost a science fiction!! But the “New Normal”, post Covid-19 concept is likely to hit the top spot on the strategic road map of most Warehouse Managers now. Apart from making their operations Faster, Smarter & Cheaper; E-commerce, Retail, FMCG, Food & Pharma companies are also going to consider ways to minimize human intervention in product handling.
So what is a Lights-off Warehouse?
In simple words, it is a warehouse or a distribution centre, which is operated solely with machines with no human workers involved. However, these-days, Lights-off is also being used as a metaphor to signify considerably higher percentage of use of automation. Few companies have already started raising hands for a Lights-off warehouse design, but as a matter of fact, all the gung-ho managers are clearly interested in using automation as extensively as possible.
All this way, the concept of Lights-off was one of the main drivers for automation. But with the pages turned and having opened this new chapter of “new-normal” post Covid-19, automation is going to drive the Lights-off warehousing for years hereafter. Apart from reducing labor costs, driving productivity, and increasing velocity; hygiene & safety are soon going to be strong motivators. Rather they already are!
What’s the optimal level of Lights-off?
Many industry experts strongly feel that it’s not a great idea to attain a complete Lights-off stage with no human involvement for their warehouses. Obvious reason being economic viability. It may not be financially worthwhile to reach 100% automation levels. However, it is highly recommended to identify those areas of a warehouse where 100% automation can be done, and huge improvements can be observed. For example, storage & retrieval operation in a retail warehouse or an e-commerce fulfilment centre can be 100% automated. Another example could be, end of line automation in FMCG, involving palletizing & depalletizing operation.
So, in your journey to be a ‘Lights-off’ facility, you should set a goal of 60-70% automation as a first step, followed by 90% as the final goal of automating the entire warehouse operation.
What Are the Challenges of Lights-off?
The Lights-off warehouse concept brings with itself it’s own set of challenges. The primary one being - cost! Just because automation may reduce labor costs and increase productivity as well as velocity, doesn’t mean it will make the most cost-efficient sense. With increased automation, industries that handle either high volume or high value are most likely to see a welcome change.
The other challenge is that in conventional warehouses, mis-labelled or damaged boxes are taken out of the process & rectified by the workers. But in a facility without people, this might be a tough nut to crack!
When it comes to order picking process, automation is still far behind humans. It simply can’t match human’s creative thinking and decision making.
And how does Touch-less help you reach Lights-off stage?
With the global pandemic of Covid-19, consumers are increasingly sensitive than ever before, about the human touch points & hygiene trust in a brand. To live up to their expectations, apart from being faster, smarter & cheaper; you need to bring to light the areas/ operations that can be automated, thereby minimizing human touch points in your overall operation. Such areas/ operations could be inbound, storage, sorting or outbound.
Some of these areas/ operations might still have human touch points e.g. you may still need a person at inbound/ outbound dock to load/ unload the cartons on/ from the telescopic conveyor. However, with dock automation, you can dramatically reduce human touch points and improve hygiene factor of your operation, apart from doubling your dock efficiency. Like inbound or outbound docks, you can invest in automation of other areas/ operations to cover 85-90% of your overall operations.
The biggest takeaway for warehouse managers is to use Lights-off concept where it makes the most sense. Creating a 100% Lights-off warehouse is probably 15-20 years down the road, but creating more pockets of automation within a facility and minimizing human touch points is the best bet right now.
Below are a few practices and technologies worth looking into when it comes to the light of Lights-off concept:
- Dock automation
- Automated Storage & Retrieval Systems (ASRS)
- High speed sortation
- Automated mobile robots
- Robotic palletizing/ depalletizing
Right now, Lights-off is a path less travelled. But don’t expect that to be a story for too long. Prepare yourself for the “new normal”!