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Warehouses are some of the most critical facilities in the supply chain. Unfortunately, they are also often one of the most prone to inefficiency, largely due to their reliance on repetitive manual processes. Automated material handling can help warehouses move past these inefficiencies.

Inefficiencies can arise from many factors, which is part of why they are so common. Fortunately, material handling automation addresses several of these areas, offering efficiency improvements across the board.

1. Reducing Picking Times

The most straightforward way automated material handling improves efficiency is by picking items faster than humans can. Autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) and similar picking robots can travel faster than workers can walk and retrieve items from higher shelves with less effort. As a result, they can dramatically increase the number of picks per minute.

Fully automated goods-to-person systems can achieve between 250 to 350 picks per person per hour. Even the most experienced employees would struggle to reach a fraction of that speed. Less advanced systems can still boost efficiency, too, with some facilities experiencing a 100% productivity increase through batch picking, which automates warehouse navigation.

As technology advances, these systems will only become faster. Considering how significant these improvements are, facilities can substantially boost their productivity even if they only automate one process.

2. Maximizing Employees’ Potential

Automated material handling also improves the efficiency of human workers. Seeing automation as a complement to manual labor rather than a replacement lets warehouses maximize their workforce’s potential.

As automated systems take over repetitive tasks, they give human workers more time to focus on other work. Even if humans and machines perform the same jobs, this partial automation has the same effect as hiring seasonal workers. Throughput will increase as warehouses can accomplish more at once without relying on hard-to-find manual labor.

Even though warehouse hiring has boomed, many facilities still need help finding enough workers to meet demand. Annual turnover rates as high as 150% exacerbate the issue. However, this shortage is less impactful if warehouses can accomplish more despite fewer workers thanks to automation.

3. Minimizing Errors

Mistakes are another common source of inefficiency in warehouses. Employees often spend too much time looking for products, pick the wrong items, mishandle materials or make other errors. Many of these mistakes are understandable, but they are also costly — even small error rates add up over time.

Automated systems are much less likely to make mistakes. This accuracy stems from the fact that machines do not get tired, cannot get distracted and apply the same objective decision-making criteria in every situation. AGVs and other automated systems operate off hard data and deliver the same accuracy every time.

Material handling automation does not require expensive physical robots to provide these benefits. Warehouses can use automated inventory management systems to adjust records automatically or direct employees to items to pick. This software automation helps workers reduce their errors, avoiding time-consuming corrections.

4. Preventing Workplace Accidents

Similarly, automated material handling can boost efficiency through safety improvements. Material handling accounts for 40% of all sprain and strain injuries in the workforce and each of the 111,000 back injuries in this category has an average recovery time of 57 days. Considering how common and time-consuming these accidents are, they significantly hamper productivity.

Automation helps by removing humans from the most dangerous tasks. It is easy to injure yourself when carrying heavy items or reaching overhead for products on upper shelves. If machines handle these more injury-prone lifts while workers focus on lighter or more easily accessible things, employees are far less likely to get hurt.

Part of this injury reduction comes from minimizing the chances of human error. Ergonomic injuries can easily arise from mistakes like improper lifting techniques, so automating error-prone processes will prevent accidents.

5. Improving Inventory Visibility

Every time a computerized system acts, it generates a data point about it. That data generation means automated material handling can improve traceability and transparency throughout the warehouse.

Automated systems can seamlessly integrate into cloud management platforms like warehouse management systems. Warehouse leaders can then track their automated solutions through these tools, seeing where robots go the most, what they pick most often and where their largest inefficiencies are. These insights lay the groundwork for ongoing improvements.

Visibility directly impacts efficiency, as it makes mistakes less likely, and informs more effective workflow and inventory changes. Over half of the organizations using warehouse visibility technologies have improved productivity by 5% to 10% and 25% have seen gains up to 15%. Automated systems enable that visibility.

Automated Material Handling Can Revolutionize Warehouses

Material handling is a crucial but inefficiency-prone process. Given this cruciality and high risks, it is an ideal candidate for automation.

As more warehouses implement automated material handling, the industry will become more efficient in virtually every area. These improvements will ripple throughout the supply chain, enabling higher productivity in downstream manufacturers and shipping partners, too. The advantages of automation are too great to ignore.

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