Industrial Automation

Warehouse Automation: It’s About More than Robots

Stephen Lacy and Steve Huck

A fully automated warehouse is about more than physical automation involving conveying systems, robots and AGVs. You also need to consider business process automation. It’s the key to gaining a competitive edge.




There is no industry standard that dictates what warehouse automation means, how it works or what it should accomplish.


For one warehouse, automation may involve a standalone piece of equipment that performs a specific task autonomously (like a robotic picker, for example). For another, it may involve a completely automated process from receiving to shipping.


But a fully automated warehouse is about more than physical automation involving smart conveying systems, robots and automated guided vehicles (AGVs). There’s another type of automation to consider: business process automation.


The difference between physical and business process automation


Physical automation is what many people think of when they envision warehouse automation. It automates the movement of the machines and equipment that support warehousing operations and order fulfillment. This can include robots, automated storage and retrieval systems, AGVs or automated conveying systems, for example, and represents Industry 3.0.


Business process automation, on the other hand, uses data from equipment, people and other business systems to show customers in real-time where inefficiencies exist. It involves digitizing manual processes and workflows (handling orders, managing inventory, processing returns, etc.) through tools, software and reporting. This eliminates the paperwork and manual processes often relied upon for daily operations.


It empowers warehouse teams to collect and centralize information so it can be easily accessed and analyzed by the right people to track the movement of items, evaluate business and operations performance, and make decisions and predictions based on what’s happening inside the warehouse.


While physical automation is a crucial part of warehouse automation, integrating process automation is the secret to edging out the competition.


With process automation comes the power to lower costs or increase revenue through actions like improving accuracy rates, lowering costs per order or decreasing inventory shrinkage. Here are just a few examples of what it enables.


1. Full visibility into warehouse KPIs


Many warehouse and distribution managers are operating in the dark. To maintain healthy inventory levels, fulfill orders accurately and respond to changes in demand, however, you need to be able to see the entire inventory flow inside your warehouse at any time.


Do you have labor ready to support the level of work required in a certain area? Is there a high-runner SKU that should be moved into a forward pick location? Is order fulfillment capacity declining, increasing or holding steady? What’s your order error rate?


If you want to be able to answer these questions with confidence, then you must know how your warehouse operations are running, and how well your KPIs align with your operational goals and standards.


Automating processes and workflows gives you visibility into each step of your warehouse and distribution center operations so that you’re prepared to answer any question that needs a fast response.


2. An understanding of current costs in real-time


In addition to keeping your finger on the pulse of operations, automation can also help you determine how much it costs to run your warehouse or distribution center. At a glance, you can track metrics like labor costs, fulfillment cost per order, inventory holding costs and power consumption cost per package.


When you know exactly how much you’re spending at any time, you have a better handle on your cost centers, labor landscape and efficiency and productivity levels. You also have the data you need to determine budget alignment, carry out accurate scenario planning and calculate return on investment (ROI).


3. The ability to pinpoint when and where money is lost


Understanding performance operations and costs also allows you to pinpoint when and where you’re losing money due to factors like inefficient processes or inventory waste.


Without insight into real-time performance and costs, you may assume that your biggest problem is in receiving. But, once you have data that tells you what’s really happening, you may realize that an inefficient transition from picking to packing is costing your warehouse money.


You can decide with confidence when and where improvements need to be made.


Transforming your own warehouse

Automation can bring added value to the daily management of your warehouse team and resources—and Belden is here to help at each step of the process.


  1. To make sure we address the right automation priorities, we’ll help you identify which stakeholders should be involved in setting goals and creating your transformation roadmap

  2. Before you decide what equipment you need, or which processes to automate, we’ll help you establish performance baselines to assess where you are. This is achieved through Gemba walks, conversations with workers and stakeholders, and workflow assessments.

  3. While we work, we’ll help you uncover the bottlenecks that slow down processes and workers.

  4. To facilitate your decision-making, we’ll help you uncover the data hiding within your warehouse or distribution center within control systems, your warehouse management system, your enterprise resource planning (ERP system) and your people.

  5. Based on what we learn, we’ll present a plan that identifies where and how you can improve, along with a roadmap that helps you tackle your challenges one at a time.

  6. This plan also includes a strategy to make your data fully visible and accessible in whatever format you need.

  7. To guide your investments, we’ll help you calculate ROI on proposed improvements so you know what to expect—and where you can make the biggest impact.


Are you ready to turn what’s happening in your warehouse into actionable data? We’re here to help you prepare for the future.


Related links:

Create Your Own Path to an Automated Warehouse

Why Your Warehouse Needs an OT Network to Meet Future Demands

Futureproof Technologies for Material Handling: It All Starts with the Network