Automated warehouses go back to the 1960s but even in the 1990s there were still problems with less than robust software and even hardware quality. In the current emergence from recession that seems to be changing as improved quality is driving up customer confidence and will underpin future automated handling systems, believes Steve Richmond, general manager of Jungheinrich UK’s systems and projects division.

During the recession the demand for warehouse automation arguably fell more than the severe slump in forklift sales. But as confidence recovers, increasingly a more diverse range and size of business appreciates the advantages of modern automated handling technology. This is in part because investors appreciate that the desire for flexibility, always crucial in a volatile business climate, is available through piecemeal or part automation, which can be augmented as business changes without costing a fortune. Aware of this trend, suppliers like SSI Schaeffer Peem and Knapp have continued with their heavy investment in more flexible hardware to allow their clients to integrate upgrades easily.

The early UK automated warehouses were largely confined to bulk pallet stores with full loads in and full loads out. Today, however, there is not only growth in small and medium-sized automated projects but also a rise in partial automation, or hybrid systems, particularly in the area of mini load cranes for handling cartons and totes. This phased approach to automation allows for more flexibility when business conditions change as well as reduce the investment risk and achieve a better return on investment.

Another driver behind growing demand for partial automation is the growing knowledge and confidence of customers. End users not only have a better understanding of the products and solutions available but also how they interact  with other parts of the supply chain.

The changing nature of consumer buying habits is also driving change towards automation and this is particularly obvious at the picking face. As cyber shopping grows at the expense of bricks and mortar retail selling, the pressures to pick fast and accurately will surge and only an automated approach can best handle that.

As in any high tech investment, however, there are always risks, including some new ones. Steve Richmond, for example, points out that some leading systems suppliers have been forced by the recession to cut back sharply on key staff, particularly in the UK. As demand returns, these companies will face a shortage of essential skills. Another risk, though hardly new, is that some suppliers will design a solution around their limited range of equipment and so their clients end up with something that has been planned to suit their restricted equipment range rather than a facility that suits the goods stored.

A shield against this pitfall could be to select an independent systems integrator thoroughly aware of all the equipment choices among competing suppliers, provided the usual checks have been made on their experience and competencies. An independent warehouse simulation outfit, like Cirrus, could also be of help.

Choosing the right supplier can be just as important as choosing the right hardware and software. This has become more important lately because the recession has highlighted a worrying trend. The competitive landscape has changed because sub-system suppliers, pressured by the recession, are adopting the role of main solutions provider. These companies do not have the financial muscle or experience of turnkey projects to cope well when expectations are unfulfilled.

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