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Improving Your Manufacturing Operations Using Warehouse Automation  

Today’s guest blog is written by John Hinchey, VP of Sales for Westfalia Technologies, Inc., a leading provider of logistics solutions for plants, warehouses and distribution centers. John has more than 20 years of experience in manufacturing and warehouse automation, and shares his insights on how managers need to starat thinking about technology and robotics can be used in your warehouse or manufacturing operation.

Sandwiched between warehouse and distribution center, manufacturing is where the value gets added. It’s where raw materials and components are turned into finished products that consumers will buy. It’s also where, historically, the bulk of efficiency improvement efforts have gone.

As a result, modern factories are highly automated centers of productivity. Things aren’t quite the same at either side of the sandwich, though, where much of the work is still performed by human workers.

To be fair, many warehouses have benefited from new technology. AGVs roam some operations, and warehouse management systems have streamlined previously manual data entry and recording tasks. Additionally, intense effort is going into automating labor-intensive tasks such as bin picking. However, improvement opportunities abound and the right solutions can yield end-to-end improvements throughout the manufacturing enterprise.

Here is a look some of the biggest, and a discussion of how warehouse automation benefits manufacturers.

Improving Performance in Manufacturing

Whether in pharmaceuticals, food and beverage or any other sector, manufacturers face the same challenges: how to lower costs and cut lead times while maintaining or improving quality. Just-in-time, kanban production and other philosophies have a part to play, but automation is the way forward for many.

With manufacturing process automation comes pressure to maximize equipment utilization, and so Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) has become one of the leading KPIs. OEE identifies where productive hours are being wasted, helping management focus on the biggest problems or opportunities.

Machine breakdowns and quality issues are often some of the biggest issues affecting OEE, and this is where the “Industry 4.0” concept comes into play. “Industry 4.0” refers to what’s seen as the fourth industrial revolution. It’s where inexpensive sensor technologies and connectivity combine to deliver hitherto unimaginable volumes of machine and process data. When aggregated and analyzed by sophisticated, often cloud-based data mining software, it yields new insights into process optimization and machine maintenance scheduling.

A third factor impacting OEE is the supply of parts and materials. With inventories shrunk to a minimum, any hiccup in deliveries from the warehouse can idle machines and even entire production lines.

The same applies at the other end of manufacturing. Problems in the finished goods warehouse or at distribution centers ripple back up the supply chain. For example, inventory record errors can lead to production of the wrong parts and additional changeovers and setups, again resulting in lower manufacturing efficiency. Improve warehouse operations and you improve manufacturing operations end to end.

Improving Performance in Warehousing

Human beings have many strengths, but performing repetitive tasks accurately isn’t one of them. Fatigue sets in, mistakes are made, and costs rise. When machines can do the same jobs faster, more consistently and at lower cost, it makes sense to automate.

Automation takes many forms and yields benefits in as many ways. In the warehouse, this breaks into two areas: automating the physical movement of goods and automating the capture and use of inventory records. Before diving into details of the systems and equipment though, it’s worth taking a moment to understand how warehousing is changing.

The Warehouse Environment

Go back a decade or more and the warehouse was where inventory stayed until needed. It was seen as a cost rather than a tool for competitive advantage. As such, the primary focus was on maximizing space utilization.

Things are more complicated today. Internet retailing has created next-day delivery expectations and warehousing has changed to suit. What were finished goods warehouses have become distribution centers (DCs) with far higher levels of picking and packing activity than was previously the case. Mixed pallets, individual cases and totes are more common, and there are more returns to process. Quality, in terms of both accuracy and damage avoidance is a bigger issue than ever. Yet at the same time, these “high velocity” DCs are still required to drive labor costs to the absolute minimum.

Even in the more traditional raw materials-type of warehouse, demands have changed. Customer expectations for customization means more variety, both in parts/materials and in packaging. Shorter lead times mean increased changeover frequency in production, and that translates to more warehouse activity. And as in the DC world, pressure to drive down costs is relentless.

Warehouse Automation Products

Beginning with hardware automation, there are many tools to consider. These include Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, (AS/RS) automated conveyor systems, AGVs and pallet flow racking systems. For automating the capture and use of inventory records, warehouse operators are turning to Warehouse Execution Systems (WES)

Warehouse AS/RS

These move pallets from receiving areas into storage locations and bring them back out for buffering, sortation and picking. The actual movement is done by pallet racking systems that may or may not include telescopic fork load extraction devices, while the racking itself is mobile, allowing for high-density, multiple deep storage.

The two biggest benefits of an AS/RS are labor savings and improved space utilization. Many operators also report energy savings as warehouses operate lights-out (though temperature and humidity requirements may remain.) Note, also, that applying Industry 4.0-type sensor technology can improve uptime while reducing maintenance requirements.

Automated Conveyor Systems

Conveyors move product — typically bags or cases — from one place to another. They can take them out to the loading dock or bring it from dock to AS/RS. Powered conveyors are an efficient means of raising product to higher floors or bringing it down.

Advanced conveyor systems come with “zero pressure” features. This means cases or bags don’t press against others stopped at a gate or barrier, which helps prevent damage. Likewise, controlled acceleration and deceleration prevent spills and damage.

Conveyor systems reduce manual handling and the need for fork trucks. Productivity rises and labor costs are reduced, along with injuries and the claims that result. And for manufacturing, automated conveyor systems deliver and remove product without delays, preventing congestion and stoppages.


Otherwise known as Autonomous Guided Vehicles, these can be an alternative to conveyor systems in some warehouse environments. AGVs follow a route around a warehouse, retrieving and delivering cases, totes and pallets as required. Like conveyors, they reduce the need for manual labor but lack speed and capacity for some situations.

Pallet Flow Racking

These use gravity as the energy source for moving pallets into and out of storage locations. Obviously, this limits use to situations where pallets are moving down rather than up. Pallet flow systems work well in cooler and freezer environments, and can be configured for either LIFO or FIFO storage. In common with conveyors, they reduce manual handling and use of fork trucks — but don’t yield the same magnitude of benefits as an AS/RS.

Warehouse Execution Systems

A WES integrates a Warehouse Management System with Warehouse Control for superior visibility into material movement and storage. It improves space utilization while reducing transportation effort through optimized location selection. By linking with tracking and identification (barcodes, RFID), warehouse execution systems improve data accuracy and reduces product losses. Perhaps best of all, a WES enables paperless operation, saving time while reducing errors.

For a lean, highly automated manufacturing operation, the benefits of a well-implemented WES are substantial. Higher data accuracy means fewer errors, translating to fewer production stoppages/changeovers and higher OEE.

Eliminate Problems to Improve Efficiency

Given that warehousing is integral to manufacturing, it’s an area where automation can improve efficiency throughout the whole operation. Just as lean manufacturing and one-piece-flow introduced the idea of focusing on factory bottlenecks to improve system performance, so too can warehouse automation improve how the whole system performs.

Warehouse automation not only cuts storage and distribution-related costs, but also can improve OEE and raise productivity. Warehouse technology includes pallet and automated conveyor systems as well as WES and AS/RS. Used individually or as part of an improvement effort, these will improve manufacturing operations.

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