In the last decade, technological advancements and innovations have been on an upward climb, which lends to an entirely new workplace dynamic and business practices. Some equipment has advanced so much that they are now able to work alongside their human colleagues. Such technology is known as ‘automation’, and it assists to stabilize workflow and reduces risks within work environment. One industry that is very drawn to automation is the logistics industry.
Many aspects of logistics work have adopted automation technologies to save time and increase overall efficiency. Warehousing is an area where automation is most intensely adopted. Any loading or moving of cargo requires high precision, especially when it comes to heavy or oversized cargo. Automation is another option to elevate warehousing service to new levels of capability. Today, Thailand joins Europe in becoming more interested in the adoption of automation technology for warehousing work.
In this issue of LM, we had the pleasure of speaking to Mr. Andreas Konrad, Logistics Systems Director, Jungheinrich and Ms. Sasiwan Vitthayachak, General Manager, PEAK Storage about Thailand’s direction and progression on adopting automation technology.
Embracing the New Era of Automation
Automation technology has been developed to be as diverse as the work to which it is adopted. Automated equipment comes in different sizes for different purposes and types of cargo. In the last few years, more Thai businesses have become interested and enthusiastic in implementing automation technology to enhance their businesses’ efficiencies, precision, and stability. Automation is most favoured by industrial factories, production plants, and warehouses.
Ms. Vitthayachak said, “In reality, automation technology has been around for a long time. It has only been in the last 2-3 years that Thai businesses took an interest in such technology. One factor that sparks an interest for Thai businesses is the drastic growth of the local e-Commerce industry. This change has pushed many businesses to mobilize their warehouses’ picking system to be more convenient, quicker, and more precise. After a purchasing order is made, data is input into the system, then the picking system will select products automatically from the shelves. Implementing an automated system can reduce the operation time in searching for particular products, and increase an operation’s efficiencies and precision when compared to a manual system. Automation can also be suitable for various sizes of e-Commerce businesses, where their clients usually choose many individual products in a single order. Implementing an automated system can really help reduce the time it takes to search and pick up each product from their shelves.”
“Many businesses may view this as a large investment. In reality, these systems and equipment can last for decades, and maintenance services and support are offered on a regular basis.”
Mr. Konrad stated, “Automation systems are gaining more interest now because they can reduce the number of operational human workforce, as well as better utilizing existing space. Businesses can run easily 24/7, 365 days a year with reduced relaying on the Human factor. Automation technology, such as automatic shuttle systems in racking blocks, can help maximizing vertical storage space. When expanding horizontally results in more expenses in land development; implementing an automated stacker crane (ASRS) for moving and stacking pallets around tall racks can be another method in taking full advantage of vertical storage space. In Thailand, the common height of warehouse buildings accommodating high storage racks is 23 meters tall, while Switzerland allows up to 46 meters. Implementing an automated stacker crane can offer a way to increase storage space and keep the risks low of damaging racks or loads.”
Nowadays, automatic equipment comes in a wide variety to be used with different types and sizes of cargo. Ms. Vitthayachak said, “Automation technology has been designed and developed to become suitable for different businesses, dealing with both big and small cargo. Each type of cargo requires a specific piece of equipment. For example, smaller cargo may require a picking system that automatically picks out each item according to a purchasing order. A picking system is, therefore, perfect for smaller products that are picked out often. On the other hand, bigger pieces of cargo require larger equipment with more lifting capability and durability, like that of a auto shuttle or lifting crane system.”
Ms. Vitthayachak added, “When a client approaches us with an intention to implement automation technology, PEAK Storage can serve them with an all-round service, ranging from consultancy to area assessment to advising. We help our clients choose the right type of equipment for their business and cargo. In some cases, a client may need extra protection against rusting due to environmental factors. For pre-existing spaces, we can also work to develop one section of the space at a time with a clear and tangible idea and plan, so that these clients may continue to work during the transitional stage.”
Furthermore, the implementation of automated systems can increase workflows’ efficiencies due to its stability compared to a human workforce. Mr. Konrad explained, “Implementing an automated system helps with the workflow stability in terms of skilled workforce. Skilled workforce recruitment is a difficult thing to do, and training new staff results in extra expense. Since new staff have less skills and experience, they are likely to spend a bit more time completing a task than those who have already learned the job functions. Although the time it takes for both old and new staff to finish a task may not differ too much; in the long run, this difference can accumulate to a large loss of operation time. Additionally, human workforce tends to get tired out during the day. Automation can help by being able to work at a constant stamina and yield the same results every day.”
“Implementing an automated system helps with the workflow stability in terms of skilled workforce. Skilled workforce recruitment is a difficult thing to do, and training new staff results in extra expense.”
With automation technology, businesses can rest assured that they will receive the same standardized results, consistently. It also helps avoiding skill and work experience gaps between each worker, due to its automatic functioning. Mr. Konrad said, “We have developed Semi-automated ‘Very Narrow Aisle’ trucks (VNA) that allow the less experienced workers to smoothly carry out a task. This is because the VNA truck navigate and approach to the designated shelves automatically after a data is input via Wi-Fi from a Warehouse Management System. Instead of a human staff having to memorize the shelf plans, these forklifts can bring cargo to the precise shelf and are able to position the forks automatically for their drivers. While they are able to function automatically, these forklifts still allow manual control, for the cases where any unforeseen obstacle arises.”
Integrating Automation with People
Although automation technology can function with stability, give a stable yield, and work with consistent stamina and precision compared to human workforce; maintenance tasks for this technology still require human’s care. “Automated systems still has some limitations for certain kinds of cargo, such as high-value ones. Human workforce is still required for this type of cargo handling. Another limitation is that automation technology is a big investment, although it reaches breakeven quickly. A semi-automated pallet handling system (VNA) only take around 3-4 years for a return on investment (ROI), while a high stacking system (ASRS) can take up to 7-8 years”, said Mr. Konrad.
Mr. Vitthayachak added, “Many businesses may view this as a large investment. In reality, these systems and equipment can last for decades, and maintenance services and support are offered on a regular basis. Furthermore, automation can reduce expenses from the risks on their human staff being involved in an accident.”
Thus, automation was not developed to replace the human workforce, but to complement their strengths and assist with minimizing human errors. Putting automation technology to work on a redundant task can save the human workforce more time to work on other tasks where actual manual work is required. Businesses ought to study and assess their needs for automation, depending on their business and type of cargo, to be able to take full advantage of this innovation. With its full potential, automation technology can assist and elevate the human workforce’s quality of work with heightened stability and diminishing work accident risks.