Start small and dream big with automation

Vivien Tay, APAC Vertical Marketing Solutions Lead for Warehousing, Transport & Logistics, Zebra Technologies

In this current economy, ASEAN’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) remain upbeat about their economic prospects.

Many businesses are excited about the ongoing tech revolution, with plans to double down on technology investments to increase efficiency, enhance the customer experience and future-proof their operations.

In countries like Singapore, the government announced that it would earmark SGD $600 million to help SMEs boost their productivity by digitalizing and automating their business processes.

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However, at the same time, this announcement reveals an underlying issue where some SMEs still stick to their current modes of operations and processes. As SMEs make up two-thirds of the workforce in Singapore and contribute to nearly half of Singapore’s Gross Domestic Product, it is time for SMEs to move towards a new way of working – one where technology is key.

Where can IT leaders and warehouse decision-makers start?

The first step, for a vast majority, is to go paperless. This means digitizing data and shifting forms, reports and manuals online to be available on mobile devices or PCs.  More ambitious leaders will focus on replacing legacy hardware and software with modern touchscreen mobile computers and warehouse management systems (WMS) allowing them to completely move past the “green screen”.

However, ultimately, as my colleague Amanda Honig, Small and Medium-Sized Business Industry Lead puts it, the general understanding is that automation is the best way to make the efficiency gains required to match consumers’ spending tempo.  

Making Automation Simple for SMEs

In the past, automation was seen as an advanced technology category or a far-fetched objective. Without a clear definition, the general term may seem too ambitious for many warehouse operators, especially smaller operations comfortable with manual processes.

In reality, automation is all-encompassing. It can describe everything such as warehouse automation, robotics automation, industrial automation, workflow automation or even decision automation.

For example, BE Switchcraft, an Australian switchboard manufacturer, initially relied on manual processes and paper-based spreadsheets to document the production status of each switchboard. As the business was undergoing rapid growth, it could no longer keep up with the increased workload. It needed to enhance its existing tracking process with automation to make updates timelier and more accurate.

They turned to a radio frequency identification (RFID)-based system consisting of RFID tags, readers, antennas and a label printer. This solution allowed them to gain real-time visibility into each stage of its switchboard manufacturing process as the RFID reader automatically scans the RFID tags to record the status of a job.

The data collected now provides valuable updates on the status of each project and financial data associated with the projects in production. BE Switchcraft reported that the RFID system reduced labor by 10% as the production crew no longer needed to spend time tracking down jobs on the factory floor. 

Automation can start simply by integrating new technology into warehouse ecosystems. In Zebra’s Warehousing Vision Study, most agree that augmenting labor with software and devices first is the best way to introduce automation.  In APAC, 95% of decision-makers indicated this willingness to invest in such software in a bid to raise worker effectiveness and efficiency and reduce labor costs, slightly outpacing the global average of 94%.

One advantage of today’s automation technology is that organizations can start small with options that do not require a total reconfiguration of floor space and then gradually scale up.

The Heart of Automation: Process Coordination and Minimal Disruptions

In essence, warehouse automation is the choreographing of tasks and information, so they flow to the right person at the right time, making the warehouse well-connected. However, this does not mean that automation projects need to be elaborate.

In fact, the most successful automation projects prioritize simplicity – in system design, worker instrumentation, onboarding, management, and usability.

Building on the BE Switchcraft example earlier, simple automation can be using RFID technology sleds to turn workers’ mobile computers into RFID readers that can practically automate inventory counts – and most certainly automate inventory replenishment orders.

Once workers snap on the RFID sled, they can easily wave their mobile devices in the general direction of the items they want to count or locate within a second, and pull in data for over 1,300 tags. The data pulled can show every information, automation and decision system running in the warehouse.

If certain stock keeping units are confirmed to be low or out of stock, the inventory management system could be prompted to reorder automatically. It could also simultaneously notify stakeholders of the shortage so they can adjust impacted operations accordingly.

The same technology can help pickers confirm the precise aisle, shelf, and position of the item they need to retrieve. They can head there without delay, driving actions or processes forward with minimal disruptions.

If there is still uncertainty about where to start, SMEs should think through the opportunities and benefits of automating everything from task assignments to progress reports and even purchases. In time, they may be able to envision a fully automated operation in which sourcing, receiving, fulfillment, and even compliance actions are flowing smoothly and on schedule.

Reshaping operations and looking for options to use space more efficiently and improve front-line warehouse workers’ productivity should be top of mind for SMEs in Singapore and the wider region. Taking the first step to automate workflows and decisions using technology will help warehouses build stronger capabilities for greater opportunities in the digital economy.

In doing so, IT leaders and warehouse decision-makers can ensure their businesses are set up for success.