A Winning Dream Team: How Automation and Manual Operations Can Work Together

When it comes to supply chain automation, there are very few questions about whether the technology is a viable option. Numerous successful projects and applications across the industry have shown that there can be benefits to incorporating certain types of automation into warehouses and distribution centers.

As supply chain managers begin to research automation solutions, they are often presented with case studies showing new, fully automated facilities that can sometimes make it feel like the technology is still somewhat out of reach. For many companies, building a new, completely automated facility may not be possible in the short term.

While technology is evolving quickly to make automation more practical for use in warehouse and distribution environments, the significant upfront investment and infrastructure requirements of an all-or-nothing approach typically involves long-term strategic planning and preparation.

So, if you’re one of the supply chain managers trying to determine which automation strategy and technologies are right for your operation, what should you do? You can start by identifying the tasks and equipment that are ideal candidates for automation. Next, prioritize those opportunities based on metrics that make sense for your business and begin with a project of a size and scope that fits your comfort level and business case.

Strategic, Scalable Solutions

Any effort to introduce automation into your facility should ideally be guided by a realistic plan with achievable expectations that can also be scalable based on success and growth. Develop a clear path for tangible return on investment, and determine a process and mechanism for building upon your success. This will help you strategically grow and evolve your automation efforts.

Given its prominent role in enabling product movement across the supply chain, the forklift provides an ideal starting point for a scalable automation initiative. One approach to forklift automation that is gaining a lot of attention is dual mode technology that enables both automated and manual operation.

Dual mode automation can be an ideal approach for companies that may not have a warehouse management system, but would still like to realize the benefits that could be provided from automation technology. Operations that do utilize a warehouse management system may contain a small percentage of exceptions that seem ill-suited for automation. Dual mode functionality can also help manage these exceptions without requiring a separate solution.

Implementing Dual Mode Automation

So, what is meant by dual mode automation? Forklifts with dual mode automation technology are capable of switching between manual and automated operations, depending on the needs of the facility. Dual mode automation enables warehouses to take an incremental approach to deploying automation solutions with minimal or no supporting systems or infrastructure.

The important thing to understand about dual mode technology is that it is based on automated equipment that can be operated manually; it is not a piece of manual equipment that has been engineered to operate autonomously. The equipment’s automation features are fully integrated into the vehicle as they typically are in a fully autonomous vehicle. The difference is that the dual mode technology allows the equipment to be used as any other manual equipment would be used when the application calls for it.

For instance, consider a tow tractor used to pull carts from point A to point B in a facility, with material being loaded and unloaded at each point. With a dual mode tow tractor, travel between the two fixed points could be automated, freeing up an operator to focus on other tasks. Should the tow tractor encounter an obstacle in the set path, such as a pallet in an aisle, a typical trained forklift operator could quickly switch the vehicle into manual mode to navigate around the obstacle. It could then be returned to automated mode to continue on to its destination, thus maintaining the flow of the system.

A dual mode system doesn’t require the specialized staff that may be required with a fully automated solution. In addition, one employee can often manage multiple dual mode vehicles, stepping in only when manual operation is needed.

This is just one example of a process that could be streamlined with dual mode automation. The possibilities will only increase as dual mode technology continues to evolve. And, by enabling a scalable approach, dual mode automation technology offers the flexibility companies need to evolve their automated processes at their own pace.

When implemented strategically and deliberately, establishing and expanding automated solutions within the facility can provide incremental benefits that prove the viability of the technology in your operation. As you explore options for dual mode technology, an experienced material handling partner can help determine how best to integrate the technology into your processes in a way that enables the benefits of the technology to be fully realized and ROI to be generated with each deployment.

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