A step-by-step approach to automation in logistics

Picture of Maria Carlsson

Maria Carlsson

8 minutes to read

The benefits of automation in logistics

There are several reasons why automation in logistics is booming these days. First of all, there is a forklift driver shortage: it is difficult to find skilled people to operate a forklift. Secondly, the operational cost of automation is more often lower than manual operation. Thirdly: this era of e-commerce requires a need for streamlined delivery, which forces logistics providers to plan and predict their logistics flow more consistently to achieve next-day delivery. Further, an automated truck drives the route as it is programmed, not damaging the infrastructure or the load, or causing any injuries, which is essential. Along with that, in terms of environment-friendliness, an AGV also uses less energy, and wears less quickly.

The strength of automated forklift trucks is that they are good at being repetitive and seeing patterns in large amounts of data, but they need precise instructions to create value. Humans on the other hand, are good at understanding context and adopting to new environments, but they sometimes get tired and lose focus. So the best solution is to have people and machines work together to a certain extent, to get the best of both worlds.

Where to start with automation

In the logistics industry, automation might not be the answer for every logistics flow. It all comes down to eliminating waste (zero muda) and adding value where it makes most sense.

When it comes to automated solutions, the trend in the European market is changing: there is a bigger demand than supply, and it’s increasing even more. Configurable standardised automation packages can help customers with automation needs to reach their targets quicker.

An automation journey for customers consists of 3 steps. First, the supplier needs to understand your business, the logistics flow on your site and your main challenges. Second step is the optimisation phase, since you don’t want to “automate the fat” as we call it. Here your processes will first be optimised before starting automation, according to the Kaizen philosophy (continuous improvement). Finally, there is the realisation: every customer is unique, but everyone should be provided with the best possible solution: the combination of benefits between man and machine. This solution can be based on a configurable portfolio which is tailored to your needs: step-by-step automation.

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Automation doesn’t need to be complex: Modular thinking

Automated solutions can seem unique and complex, but the material flow it is actually quite logically and systematically moved throughout the site. With a systematic approach you can easily find commonly used functions that could be described into configurable modules for repetitive use. This is the Toyota way of working: separating the repetitive parts from the unique, one-of-a-kind, within the process.

Let’s take a closer look. By going to the source (genchi genbutsu) and visiting customer production sites, we can find common elements: inbound docks, material buffers, picking and kitting areas for preparing goods, production area, final goods storage, and the outbound area. As the material flows through the site, it passes these main processes:

  • Put-away: moving incoming goods to the material buffer
  • Replenishment: feeding material to production
  • Return handling: such as empty pallets, scrap
  • Point-to-point transport: within the production areas
  • Finished goods: taking finished goods to a temporary storage and then to the outbound area for shipping

Further we examine ways of starting orders, station arrangements and strategies for selecting destinations in these processes. All these processes have common and unique characteristics, and can be reduced to a more generic level. This level describes a generic “flow configuration” that could be tweaked to support any of the above main processes. Using this approach for the repetitive parts, we can focus on the unique processes in a more efficient way.

By applying our Toyota values, we work together with every customer to determine their specific challenges, and to tackle them step by step through teamwork and respect. By breaking the process down into smaller modules, it is just a matter of putting the right pieces together to create the best solution for each customer.

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