Five phases to developing a successful warehouse automation plan

Movu Robotics presented steps to successful warehouse automation adoption at MODEX 2024.
Movu Robotics presented steps to a successful warehouse automation plan. Credit: Chris Vavra, WTWH Media

The warehouse industry has transformed from a dire state 20 years ago to an exciting era driven by Industry 4.0. Automation, fueled by efficiency, drives global growth, especially in the U.S.. However, newcomers to robotics need a solid warehouse automation plan, according to Movu Robotics.

Five current trends, including e-commerce growth and workforce challenges, are driving warehouse adoption of automation. Upcoming trends like actionable data and robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) also promise significant benefits, reflecting continuous industry evolution.

Christoph Buchmann, sales director at Movu Robotics, outlined a five-step process for successful automation adoption. They include change management, a robust process review, software design emphasizing IT integration, hardware considerations, and meticulous implementation with worker training for long-term success.

The warehouse industry was in a terrible state 20 years ago, according to Buchmann. Today, he said, it’s a very exciting time, thanks to the rise of Industry 4.0 and other concepts, which are fueling the growing trend toward automation and data exchange in technology and processes.

Automation offers great potential for manufacturers, Buchmann said during his presentation “Mastering the Path to Automation: A Roadmap for Successful Implementation” at MODEX in Atlanta.

“If you’re not thinking about automation now, you should start,” he said.

Christoph Buchmann, sales director at Movu Robotics, discussed a roadmap for successful automation implementation in Atlanta
Christoph Buchmann, sales director at Movu Robotics, discussed how to adopt warehouse automation in Atlanta. Credit: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Five trends to consider in a warehouse automation plan

Buchmann said five things are driving the acceleration of warehouse automation:

  1. Greater efficiency and profitability. It’s more cost-effective than ever to implement automation.
  2. Workforce development changes. The worker shortage remains a major challenge for employers.
  3. Rising cost of real estate. Rather than build new facilities, companies are trying to make more of what they have.
  4. E-commerce growth. The COVID-19 pandemic was among the factors forcing changes in consumer behavior and expectations for faster order fulfillment.
  5. Food supply. The food and beverage industry has been using automation even more to match consumer demand and keep costs down.

While these trends are fueling automation’s growth now, Buchmann said five more trends are coming that will have just as big an impact:

  1. Actionable data. There is more data than ever, and the technology has evolved to where companies can take advantage.
  2. Accelerating technology. Advances in machinery, software, and now artificial intelligence are continuing.
  3. Entry-level automation. Buchmann said automation was big and complex 20 years ago. That has changed. Now, robots are more scalable, more affordable, and less complicated.
  4. RaaS. Robotic fleets have grown in manufacturing facilities and small-to-midsize enterprises (SMEs) are turning to the service model to use robotics for their short-term needs rather than making the long-term investment right now.
  5. Safety and sustainability. Keeps workers and facilities safer has always been a priority, but now companies are trying to reduce energy costs.
Five trends are driving warehouse automation plan and growth.
Five current and future trends are driving automation growth in warehouse facilities. Credit: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Five steps to moving from a manual to an automated process

Buchmann said there are many benefits automation can bring such as better efficiency and throughput, higher profitability, better safety and improved accuracy. However, he acknowledged that it isn’t as easy as pushing a button.

Buchmann described a five-step process to transition from a manual process to an automated one. The entire transition requires a culture change, he said, and taking ownership and trusting in your partners and employees is key.

Management might approve, but the workers are the ones who will make a deployment happen, Buchmann added. It’s critical that the plan be flexible system and plan throughout the entire process.

“The one thing you can expect is the unexpected,” he said.

1. Change management

Putting people, particularly those who will be most affected, in a leadership role is critical. Buchmann said people are naturally reluctant to change, and they need to be persuaded. He said doing this with a heavy hand and making people feel bad about what they’re doing wrong right off the bat will shut down the conversation before it even begins.

He said the trick is to encourage them by highlighting what they’re doing well and lowering their emotional barriers to new ideas.

“You’ll be surprised how quickly they’ll buy in,” Buchmann said. “Workers want to shine.”

By building on those small wins and having them own the new processes and technology, it’ll be easy to get buy-in on the ground floor, which is where change management starts.

2. Process review and design

Buchmann said developing a strong plan is critical because it needs to improve open what is already being implemented. He said having the right data is critical to success, and any potential solution is only as good as the data that goes into the design. Developing an automation plan on bad data or a bad process is only going to lead to a bad automated process, he said.

Gathering the right data requires an in-depth data analysis of the information most important to the operation and creating models that illustrate a full view of the four walls within an operation. It can also help uncover the nuances that make each corporation unique and provide a foundation to build success, said Buchmann.

He recommended that companies follow these three steps during the process review and design:

  • Assess current operations. Conduct a thorough analysis of warehouse processes, workflows, and technologies and consider future needs.
  • Set clear objectives. Define specific goals for warehouse automation, and establish key performance indicators (KPIs) and targets to measure the implementation’s success.
  • Educate yourself. Buchmann said people involved in the project should engage with vendors and technology experts as well as evaluate the latest automation technologies to find successful examples.

It’s important to answer key questions such as “What is the automation transition designed to achieve?” he said. It’s also worth looking at an alternative analysis and determining what is the cost or risk of not automating.

From there, the plan can move forward with a business case that provides a thorough and detailed roadmap for success.


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3. Software design

Buchmann said companies should not underestimate the importance of IT integration because the most common reason for failed automation implementations is lack of it.

It’s a little more complicated because warehouse software can have overlapping functions and no fixed function divisions. That means each IT landscape of a warehouse is different. Companies need to find the right set of functions to successfully fulfill operational needs.

Getting the automated interface right and using a digital twin, which is an emulation and virtual replica of a real-life system, also can help as a tool to drive improvements in warehouse productivity and efficiency.

4. Hardware design

There are many types of automation equipment used in warehouse facilities. The four most common are:

  1. Mobile robots
  2. Automated storage and retrieval systems (ASRS)
  3. Conveyor and sortation systems
  4. Stationary and collaborative robots.

Buchmann explained that there are many operational needs and priorities to consider such as whether the facility should be semi-automated or fully “lights out.” It’s also worth asking about operational redundancy, adaptability, and scalability during the process.

Whatever the case, a thorough analysis is a must because mismatched technologies lead to inefficiencies, said Movu Robotics.

5. Implementation and support

Now the real physical work starts, said Buchmann. The good news is everything is all set because KPIs were already established.

The commissioning and implementation process should cover the fundamentals, such as testing everything at all levels and doing performance tests beforehand. Worker training is also critical for a warehouse automation plan to be successfully executed.

It won’t be a perfect process and it shouldn’t be, but the issues will be minor, Buchmann said, as long as people know how to react. “Minor problems can cause downtime if you’re not trained for them,” he said.

People are at the heart of the process, and companies that realize and value their workers’ potential and take the time to develop a strong process will come out ahead in the automation race. It’s one they can’t afford to lose as it becomes more than a “nice to have,” like it was 20 years ago. Now, a warehouse automation plan is a necessity.

Editor’s note: This article is syndicated from Automated Warehouse sibling site Plant Engineering.

Written by

Chris Vavra

Chris Vavra is a senior editor at WTWH Media LLC, the parent company of Plant Engineering, Control Engineering, The Robot Report, and Automated Warehouse. He works with brand editors on developing content from leading manufacturers, end users, integrators, and other thought leaders. Vavra was previously a Web content manager at CFE Media and Technology, which WTWH acquired in early 2024.