Investing in Warehouse Automation? Who Isn’t.

ARC Advisory Group, in partnership with DC Velocity magazine (see DC Velocity Infographic), recently completed survey-based research on the changing practices, priorities, and expectations of warehouse executives. Many individuals reading this article are likely informed about recent sales and adoption trends through supplier press releases and user case studies. ARC’s survey-based research findings complement these other sources of information with a broad-based view of practitioner perspectives, priorities, and expectations that provide insights on the order of magnitude with respect to current trends and future developments.

As noted in prior articles, our survey respondents chose WMS as the one warehouse technology investment that is the highest priority/importance to their organizations over the next three years. But the most impressive statistic from the research is that a full 96 percent of survey respondents indicated that they expect the warehouse automation value proposition (in comparison to the manual alternative) to increase over the next 3 years. Let’s take a deeper dive into the warehouse automation findings from this research.

Widespread Interest in Warehouse Automation

Warehouse automation is expected to become an increasingly desirable option to the manual alternative over the next few years. But that doesn’t directly indicate a high likelihood of investment in these technologies. However, when asked about the likelihood of warehouse automation investment over the next three years, 60 percent of respondents indicated it was “very likely” while an additional 19 percent considered it “likely” (the remainder chose “somewhat likely” or “not at all likely”). So broad-based investment activity is expected as well. The next logical question is “Why is warehouse automation being viewed in such a positive light?” Our findings indicate that changes in the operating environment; such as labor costs, labor shortages, and increased throughput requirements; are the primary influential factors. Meanwhile, our findings also suggest that advancements in automation, such as lower costs and scalability improvements, are supporting factors.

Warehouse Subsystems in Demand

Separate ARC research (Warehouse automation & control market study) indicates that the global warehouse automation market represents over $10 billion in annual spending. It’s a market that is large in scope encompassing a broad range of offerings. So what warehouse automation technologies are practitioners most likely to adopt? Emerging technologies certainly generate the most excitement, but established technologies offer proven benefits, often with lower risk.

warehouse automation

Established Warehouse Automation

Conveyors and sortation systems are a staple of warehouse automation and are often deployed along with other subsystems. So, it’s understandable that over 60 percent of respondents expect to invest in conveyors and sortation over the next 3 years. Shuttle systems is the technology with the second highest level of adoption expectations. ARC’s warehouse automation and AS/RS research also shows that the shuttle systems market is growing rapidly. These findings are further supported by estimates of recent growth rates by industry trade groups such as the European Material Handling Federation. Generally speaking, shuttle systems address the needs of many warehouses by providing high throughput, scalability, and storage density. Surprisingly, there were also relatively high levels of adoption expectations for AS/RS (stacker cranes) and traditional AGVs – showing that these well-established technologies continue to address the needs of modern warehouse requirements as well.

Emerging Warehouse Automation

Generally speaking, emerging technologies are not widely installed, but adoption is growing at a rapid pace (or has potential to grow at a rapid pace). Our survey results reflect this dynamic. The percentage of respondents likely to invest in these emerging warehouse automation technologies within the next 3 years is lower in aggregate than the responses to the established technologies, but still very substantial. Furthermore, a larger percentage expect to invest in 1-3 years than within the next 12 months. A full 49 percent of respondents expected to invest in shuttle system-robot hybrid solutions (the question was designed to measure intention for investment in solutions such as Exotec, Attabotics, Fabric, etc. However, it likely captured intention for investment in other forms of hybrid solutions as well). I found this response to be especially impressive, given the current nascency of these solutions on the market. Also surprising to me was the substantial expectations for adoption of robotic case picking. One 3PL respondent stated their forthcoming investment in this technology is to support case level mixed pallet configurations for retailers doing omni-channel replenishment from store location. This use case, and other needs for mixed pallets, are likely in higher demand than I had anticipated. Finally, autonomous mobile robotics (AMR), such as Locus Robotics and 6 River Systems, are on practitioners’ radars for near-future adoption. Zone-based AMR, such as Geek+ and GreyOrange, are also being given due consideration.

Final Word

The respondents took the survey in late January and early February 2020. This represents the time-period just prior to the major impact of Covid-19. I believe the same trends will mostly occur as if the pandemic had not occurred. However, I believe technology investments will experience a slight delay, followed by an accelerated shift to e-commerce fulfillment requirements occurring shortly thereafter.

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