chaz3In times of economic adversity the prescient will emerge the victors while the fretters, at best, will lose their competitiveness. In any recession it is natural to cut back investment to worry about present viabilities than future capabilities but such behaviour misses a golden opportunity, implies Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich’s systems and projects division. More than ever, the time and value of planning for the future now is vital to outwit the competition.

Full automation is rightly seen as high cost and slow in payback, a typical, fully automated warehouse taking at least five years to payback, but many of today’s handling automation projects would be considered only partial or upgrades to existing systems. At these levels, even in recessionary times, such investment paybacks can be realistic but it is not just about payback issues. Automation is a powerful tool for retaining customer loyalty through more accurate picking, fewer stock outs, quicker deliveries and less damage.

For the warehouse operator there are also significant benefits when the most appropriate software is harnessed to the hardware. An excellent stock forecasting system, for example, could reduce stocks by one third while leaving customer fulfilment issues unaffected. This could mean, if considering a move of premises or a greenfield site operation, a smaller building and so lower fixed and running costs.

There is no avoiding the fact, however, that in recessions supply chain operators are eschewing big budget spends in favour of modifications to existing solutions. Fortunately, equipment suppliers like SSI Schaefer Peem and Knapp have continued with heavy investment in more flexible hardware to allow their clients to integrate upgrades easily.

Order picking, usually the most costly area of many warehouse operations, is one key area where suppliers are designing new products to help their customers weather recessions and improve their competitiveness. One example is Schaefer Peem’s high speed Robopick, designed to pick over 2,000 items per hour through efficient image processing. It overcomes the limitations imposed by automated picking systems, like A-frame systems, which limits use to specific sets of products.

In general, current vision and robotic systems are not flexible enough to cope with dynamic demands of today’s distribution systems, believes Schaefer, but they claim that Robopick is flexible enough to enhance the efficiency of any warehouse. It is also well below the costs of goods-to-man stations. By developing flexible picking systems that can cope with a wide range of products, Schaefer believes it can help businesses to streamline warehouse operations and so cut costs and space.

Knapp has shown that manual picker-to-goods picking based on voice systems can be bettered by what it calls “augmented reality.” Its KiSoft Vision, available early this year, is an integrated navigation system which guides pickers to pick locations using special software that superimposes virtual information, such as arrow symbols, directly onto the operator’s visual field through a head-mounted display.

These are just some examples of how equipment producers are refusing to let recession crimp their R&D development and in the process help buyers to become more competitive. If now is not the time to invest in such upgrades  then at least now is the time to plan for them, believes Jungheinrich’s Steve Richmond.

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