Future-proof your fulfilment or distribution centre with automation

Whether you’re building a new fashion fulfilment centre, distribution centre or 3PL facility or expanding an existing one, it’s an expensive endeavour. To maximise your return on investment, it’s important to invest in tools and technology that will ensure the longevity of the facility – in terms of design, size, storage capacity and function. In order to do this, you need to take the time to map out your current and future business needs and plan your systems design, to ensure your material handling automation is not obsolete in five years. 

By Brian Hansen

Investing for the short-term doesn’t pay in the long-term

When it comes to future-proofing fashion logistics facilities, there’s a temptation to start investing in tools and technologies straight away rather than taking the time to look at the facility’s current business needs as well as making some projections for the future. But there’s an inherent danger in this:

  • Operators can invest in the wrong direction only to find the solution is not appropriate for their particular business needs; and
  • Often less costly investments work well in the short-term but end up quickly being incapable of handling future requirements.

Instead, a fashion logistics facility is better off embracing the fact that it doesn’t know what the future will bring and start its future-proofing efforts by collecting data, even before knowing precisely how that data can be used. Data can be a valuable basis for a number of performance analyses that can provide in-depth insights. And even if a facility does not have the resources, a skilled integrator can collect the data for it and assist with analysing and understanding it.

A fashion fulfilment or distribution centre should also expose its concepts to a variety of possible future scenarios. Taking the time and money to conduct sensitivity analyses, for example, will be worthwhile as they will often show if the proposed investment is a good idea or not. A more hands-on option is the use of simulation tools to help a fashion facility see how its system would behave under different operational conditions, calculated from the same baseline each time.

By taking these steps, a supply chain manager can identify the opportunities and limitations in its proposed investments.

Mapping your needs

Before considering specific technologies, fashion logistics operators need to be thinking about their system processes. This means mapping out their business processes, looking at their needs and asking where and why bottlenecks are occurring in their systems. Is it an issue, for example, of:

  • Speed?
  • Staffing?
  • Costs?
  • Storage?
  • Handling returns?

These factors will, of course, vary between centres – some have goods that must be stored, so storage is not a choice; others will require manual picking.

It is only by mapping out their systems that supply chain managers will end up with an individual approach that best fits their specific needs and is future-proof. Once their systems are mapped, managers are in a position to pick which parts of their processes should actually be automated by determining which aspects would value add the most to their particular situations.

Our advice is to seek outside help from a knowledge partner expert in intralogistics in doing this.

Getting help from the outside

Chances are, most supply chain organisations with logistics and supply chain experience will lack the necessary systems design and build expertise to put in place strategies and tactics that can best help them future-proof their operations. Engaging with a knowledge partner who specialises in systems design and automated processes, therefore, can help warehouse managers produce the right situational analyses and implement plans to improve operations and profits for the long-term.

After identifying the business needs, a knowledge partner can:

  • Perform a gap analysis of the operation process to identify which processes the current technology supports, where the gap(s) lie and the steps needed to achieve future operations goals;
  • See which processes need to be automated and which don’t simply by knowing the right questions to ask;
  • Uncover issues the operator has not considered but are vital to finding the right solutions; and
  • Suggest the possibilities of the key technologies the fulfilment or distribution centre is using and how they can be made ready for the future with open warehouse controls for integrating with future technologies.

In for the long haul

The best knowledge partner is one that can be trusted and is willing to work alongside the logistics facility for the long haul – who will be there, not just through the initial design phase, the design and implementation, but throughout the system’s entire lifecycle.

This long-term partnership is particularly important for after the delivery of the system. This is when a knowledge partner can really augment the distributor’s operations with its ongoing support. Through remote support, for example, a knowledge partner’s team of specialists can guide a service process using a real-time, live assistance system with video and audio technology. It can also provide residential maintenance, repair and inspection support, as well as the operational servicing of the system. An experienced knowledge partner also has analysts, the necessary IT infrastructure and agile sets that are capable of analysing a facility’s live, unstructured data. This helps the warehouse optimise its system and make continuous improvements, including the integration of future products and systems.

Conclusion

It’s important that supply chain managers find smarter ways of managing their operations without hurting the bottom line. That means mapping out business needs and planning the systems design before starting to invest in technologies. Utilising the experience and skills of a knowledge partner can help a logistics centre identify its needs and design a system that is future-proof. Look for a knowledge partner you can trust and who you know will be with you over time.

 

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