Published 31-05-2022

Automation retrofits help older warehouses keep up with increasing demand


Robotic material handling systems, such as pallet shuttles and goods-to-person Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS), are flourishing because they are ideally suited to meet the needs of today’s warehouses. Offering exceptional storage density, high throughput, enhanced sustainability and improved accuracy and productivity, these systems are helping warehouse operators and supply chain managers deal with SKU growth, fluctuations in demand and changing customer expectations.


Some operators with older warehouses, however, may feel left behind by this new wave of warehouse technology. They may believe they have no choice but to live with the limitations of their current processes and systems or may even be considering investing in a new build to address the challenges they face. Fortunately, a third option is available: Adding automation to the existing facility. 


Unlike older mechanised approaches to warehouse automation, today’s robotic-based systems are adaptable to their environment. Their flexible configuration options allow them to work in a variety of building shapes and sizes and even around obstructions such as columns. They also feature a modular design that enables a phased approach to implementation that can allow the warehouse to continue to serve customers while automation is deployed. 


Cuong Vo, Swisslog Head of Sales and Consulting, Australia and New Zealand admits that there may be some challenges requiring addressing in older facilities, such as cracked or uneven floors. 


“It is, however, much less expensive to repair or replace a cracked floor than to build a new facility. And lower capital costs are just one of the many benefits you can realise by adding automation to an existing warehouse,” said Mr Vo.


ASRS systems, such as Swisslog’s PowerStore pallet shuttle, can deliver up to 60% more storage capacity than existing shelfing or pallet storage, expanding warehouse capacity and freeing up space for other processes. In each-picking applications, goods-to-person ASRS systems, such as AutoStore and CycloneCarrier, deliver productivity improvements of 200% to 300%, with picking accuracy of 99% or better. 


Swisslog’s PowerStore system has been used in Australia by Linfox Bevchain to enhance safety and increase storage by around 60%.


“This was a brownfield site, where the PowerStore solution had to be designed around the structure of BevChain’s existing building,” explained Mr Vo.


“Automation can also reduce the environmental footprint of the facility by minimising interplant and intra-plant transportation requirements, and the automation software delivers better visibility into product inventory, enhanced performance reporting and synchronisation of manual and automated processes.


“In short, you get the full benefits of today’s data-driven, robotic, and flexible automation technologies faster and at lower cost than you would by building a new automated warehouse.”


The first step in adding automation to an existing building is a site assessment. The Swisslog site assessment process is designed to help determine the feasibility of a facility to accommodate automation and identify any limitations that must be addressed before automation can be deployed.


“One of the benefits of working with Swisslog is that we offer a full range of pallet-handling as well as case and each-picking technologies, allowing us to tailor solutions to specific structural requirements, density and throughput objectives”, added Mr Vo.


“Regardless of the automation system selected, implementation must be carefully managed to minimise disruption on current operations. Our process can often be accomplished while the facility continues to serve customers using established manual processes.”


One approach that has been successful is to consolidate inventory in one area of the warehouse to free up space for the initial phase of the automation deployment. The first module of the automation system is then deployed and brought on-line as a pilot and the warehouse operates in hybrid manual-automated mode while the next module is deployed.


Alternately, where feasible, customers can transfer some inventory to secondary locations to free up space for the first phase of implementation. Once the first module is deployed, inventory is transferred back to the facility and the increased storage density provided by the automation system can be leveraged to free up space for additional modules. 


To further assist with challenges created by the pandemic, Swisslog has remotely commissioned several Australian projects, which meant they were able to be delivered on-time and on-budget, despite strict COVID regulations preventing on-site visitor access at times.


“As soon as COVID hit, we knew our first responsibility was with our customers,” explained Mr Vo.


“We put them first and delivered on-time despite hugely challenging conditions. Collaboration with global teams, including Technology Centres and experts, helped in implementing the projects efficiently, and using global learnings to implement best practice locally.”


If you’re dealing with SKU proliferation, experiencing deteriorating service levels, struggling to maintain efficiency and productivity goals or having trouble recruiting and retaining labour, a warehouse automation project can solve your operating problems while extending the life and value of your warehouse. 




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