Fully automated warehouses can be a bit of a taboo subject for companies at times. After all, jobs performed by robots cannot be fulfilled by people. However, today’s very low unemployment rate means that more and more companies are having a hard time finding workers for these jobs, so they are being forced to consider warehouse automation. This does sound like a dream scenario for supply chain executives: high productivity without the ancillary costs associated with a human workforce.
With the rise of ecommerce, more and more customers are shopping online and having items shipped directly to their homes or a store nearby. These customers are also expecting their orders to arrive more quickly than ever before, driving the need for streamlined and constant productivity in warehouses. Because of this, dark warehousing is becoming a more and more popular option, even though it can be costly to implement upfront.
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What Is a Dark Warehouse?
A dark warehouse is a warehouse that has been fully-automated to operate with no human input needed. Left alone with the lights out, the dark warehouse continues to run operations on its own with no human labor. The bulk of work in dark warehouses is done using fixed and mobile robots and a completely automated systems.
A dark warehouse goes beyond a simple goods-to-person automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) in a warehouse. It also includes material handling equipment, self-guided forklifts, vision-guided robots, robotic palletizers, and high-speed conveyor systems.
The picture painted by highly innovative companies is that of a completely “dark” warehouse, one that is manned entirely by robots and with no human labor. In most automated warehouses, the main task is carrying shelves of products to a human worker who then picks items from the shelves to pack for shipment. The next step is to automate the picking process entirely.
Advantages of a Dark Warehouse
Robotic workforces have many advantages over their human counterparts: They do not require breaks or vacations. The same machines can run all three shifts of the day without getting tired or complaining. They can withstand temperature extremes better than humans can (thus saving on heating/cooling costs), they do not need health insurance, etc. All of these benefits can lead to significant cost savings for an organization.
A dark warehouse is also generally a quicker and more efficient solution, as there is less chance for errors and slowdowns with automated machines. These warehouses can also operate 24/7 with no breaks, which can almost double productivity in many instances.
Disadvantages of a Dark Warehouse
The downside of a dark warehouse is the tremendous upfront capital expenditure. While human labor is costly over the long haul, that money is paid out in small increments. To fully automate a warehouse requires a great amount of upfront cost that many companies can have a hard time justifying. Dark warehouses also have the limitation of simplicity. The higher the complexity of a process, the higher the cost of an automated process.
Regardless of that high upfront capital expenditure, a dark warehouse is becoming a goal for many. These types of facilities are most possible in warehouses where human workers are moving large quantities of the same types of objects repeatedly.
Another type of facility that is a good candidate for full or near-full automation is cold storage or freezer warehouses. These are commonly used in the food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries. Automation reduces the exposure of human workers to adverse conditions and lowers the costs of maintaining appropriate climate control.
Ready to Implement a Dark Warehouse?
Ultimately, the path to a dark warehouse is first reliant on the implementation of these three things
- Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems
- High-speed sorting equipment
- Warehouse robotics
ASRS are “lights out” by design, since there is no room for a human operator within them. These work best in distribution centers that handle high volumes of inventory moving in-and-out of storage. The best-of-breed ASRS solutions can sort, sequence, and bugger goods for tasks such as picking, order fulfillment, and temporary or long-term storage. High-speed sorting equipment, including robotic arms, can operate independently of human intervention and get the goods where they need to be.
Recent innovations have allowed the robotic workforce to become mobile, making it more likely that mobile robotic workforces will drive the warehouses of the future. Using wireless instructions from a warehouse management system (WMS) or warehouse execution system (WES), these robots can transport pallets and cases of goods throughout the warehouse.
While we are still far from dark warehousing becoming the norm, it is best to start considering the possibility as soon as possible. With rapid technological advancement, it likely will not be long before lights-out facilities become more and more prevalent.
Learn how enVista’s warehouse design team can help your organization discover the advantage of automation and prepare for the future!
enVista can help you with all of your warehouse needs, from warehouse control systems, to labor management systems, to storage systems and warehouse management systems. Strategically leverage dark warehouse automation and other warehouse automation solutions for a competitive advantage across your warehouse operations.