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Posted 12 August 2020 by
Eva Cammaert
Supply Chain & Operations Professional

3 challenges to overcome during your ‘phygital’ warehouse automation projects

Are you currently planning any projects in your warehouse? Or do you have some projects planned in the future? In any case, I bet they are “phygital.“ When talking about warehouse automation, most people think of physical automation, such as building a new warehouse or changing the way of working with visible layout changes (such as replacing shelves with robotics).

A significant part of such projects consists of designing and building the setup. This takes up a lot of time, while your normal operations would have to continue at their current or a temporary location.

Then there’s process automation, where you might face physical changes in your current warehouse but also more subtle digital changes (such as adding a WCS—Warehouse Control System—layer.)

Although this sounds logical, both forms of automation have their challenges when it comes to testing, implementation and the change management needed to obtain the envisioned results internally and maintain those results. Let’s take a closer look at this in the context of your “phygital” warehouse automation projects.

Challenge 1: The importance of physical testing

Whatever type of automation is implemented, it is essential to perform testing, preferably with real products. Depending on the changes made, it may also be necessary to test the interfaces between different systems. These tests will give a first indication of what needs to be adapted and make sure that all the discovered issues can be corrected before the implementation phase, or at least a workaround can be provided to avoid surprises at the go-live.

In the case of physical automation, you can start testing the setup from the moment the mechanical equipment has been installed. Testing can be done at any suitable time by aligning the physical environment to the test systems. It is recommended that enough time is provided to test scenarios and for resolving any issues that may be detected. The test scenarios’ complexity can be built up during this phase and can be adapted based on the results of earlier tests.

Challenge 2: From workaround instructions to implementation

Every implementation puts stress on operations during the first hours, days, or even weeks. On the one hand, people need to get used to the new way of working. This means that productivity will be lower at first. On the other hand, issues will arise, and they need to be dealt with quickly and decisively.

Resolving issues may take some time if the root cause is not immediately apparent. Or the solution may require input and decisions from different stakeholders. Even if the root causes and solutions are immediately apparent, you still need time to develop the change.

In cases where the solution cannot be implemented immediately, it is important to create short-term workaround instructions to continue operations. These workarounds may include extra steps and dedicated people putting extra effort into the process.

And then there’s more testing.

Remember that testing after implementation is different from testing during the test phase. During the test phase, you test an entire list of scenarios, while testing after implementation will focus on a specific solution. This solution may create a new issue in a different step or workflow. That’s why you need to be vigilant when implementing these new solutions. A good tip is to plan them at a quiet time to avoid business implications.

If you perform the implementation in a new building, you will be able to ramp up the activities in the automated part of the warehouse. This also means that further issues may arise, and you will undoubtedly need to revise, speed up or slow down your ramp-up plan, depending on the results and the issues.

When you work on system-wide automation, the change must be done more or less overnight and will not allow you to ramp up the activities. In this case, all the changes will go live at the same time. It is essential to have sufficient people available during all shifts and workaround scenarios to be able to deal with new issues arising.

In the end, a physical implementation may contain more significant changes; because of the possibility of ramping up, it may turn out to be a smoother implementation.

Challenge 3: Getting to know the new way of working with change management

The people in the warehouse, from the operators to the managers, will see differences in the way of dealing with the change after implementation. As they are the final key to a successful implementation, it is also necessary to estimate the impact on their daily operations.

In the case of physical automation, you will need less workforce for the same amount of work. As it will be a new environment, it will be more natural to adapt to the new way of working. Not only will the products look familiar, but physical automation also leads to better ergonomics for the operators, and it can be awe-inspiring to see some of the robotics at work. As a result, there will be less resistance to change. Change management should focus on getting to know the new way of working.

In process automation, it is a different change from the operators’ point of view. They keep working in a familiar environment, but some of the underlying logic will have changed. For operators, it may be natural to stick to their old ways of working, and there may even be some workarounds they have adopted through the years. In this case, the change management will have to focus on making sure that the operators follow the guidance of the system and that they do not try to force the new system to work as the old. Ready for takeoff?

In conclusion, whatever form of automation you are implementing, you need to give enough attention to all the steps. Besides, you have to make sure you involve the people using it at an early stage. You can have a fantastic business case for your automation, but when the people working with the system are not using it as expected, your automation will never attain the theoretical benefits from your business case, whether this is in cost efficiency, customer response time and/or space utilization.

Do you have any burning questions, or are you keen to find out more? We have already delivered various successful warehouse automation projects, so feel free to contact us to find out how we took charge of them!

Eva Cammaert

Eva is a supply chain and operations professional at Bluecrux.