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Beyond the Factory: Examining Warehouse Automation Maintenance

Beyond the Factory: Examining Warehouse Automation Maintenance

Automation is as important to productivity in the warehouse and distribution center (DC)—the links in your supply chain­—as it is in the plant. When you visit today’s facilities, in addition to automated cranes and conveyors, industrial robots, and sortation systems, expect to see more information technology. For example, mobile data collection systems keep tabs on material location, and machine condition data and problem alerts move through the air. Producing the data is a network of PLCs and computers and the software that makes it all work together.

So what’s the current state of warehouse and DC automation? Modern Materials Handling recently asked readers about their warehouse and DC automation and maintenance strategies. Here’s what they found:

While some companies are 75 percent automated or more, other survey respondents were just a scant 13 percent automated. In fact, a full 30 percent have no automation at all. About half of companies are on the automation road but still using old methods for some functions. You can expect these percentages to change, though, as automation gets better, cheaper, and more flexible.

Do you agree with the statement, “Automated material handling systems continue to become harder to maintain?” 

Some 38 percent agreed or completely agreed that it was true. Only 20 percent disagree, and 41 percent were somewhere in the middle. Maintenance requires a whole new management approach with advancing automation. It’s the maintenance team that has to keep it all running smoothly, without damage to goods or unplanned downtime. Lagging companies neglect maintenance of their automation equipment, while leading companies make maintenance part of standard procedure. As increased productivity from more automation reduces the need for lower-skilled workers, the demand for skilled and well-educated technicians expands. Maintenance has become a profession, not a task.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to be like the 14 percent of respondents finding the people they need without much difficulty. More likely, you’d put yourself among the 84 percent who are not finding it easy.

There are several ways companies are hiring technicians:

  • 34 percent are poaching talent from other companies
  • Around 30 percent find talent at local community colleges and schools
  • About 20 percent are looking for military veterans—and maybe more should look in that direction
  • 70 percent of companies would rather train their own people

Even if they are tapping all of these sources to cover all automation maintenance tasks, only about half of respondents could do so with internal staff alone. About 30 percent are outsourcing at least some maintenance to solutions providers. Nearly 20 percent avoid the problem by outsourcing all maintenance needs.

Turning to solutions providers for maintenance has its merits, but if that’s your route, you’d better be prepared with the right questions in your RFP. When asked what were most important to them, experienced managers named capabilities like remote monitoring technology (33 percent), OEM parts (40 percent), and upgrades and retrofits (47 percent).

Topping the list, however, were people-related requirements.

  • Some 89 percent said that technician competency was extremely important to them
  • 59 percent of companies surveyed were looking for inspections
  • 72 percent were looking for preventive maintenance service
  • 61 percent of companies want solutions providers to come in and train their operators
  • Training for technicians was extremely important to 77 percent of respondents and somewhat important to 21 percent. Only 2 percent didn’t really care.

Companies have to recognize that keeping automated equipment running smoothly in their warehouses and DCs is no small matter. It takes expertise that their general maintenance teams may not have. Then they need to be realistic about the level of service it will take to consistently run high performance operations. Finally, they—or solutions providers taking advantage of the trend—need to reckon with the importance of having smart people available who know what they’re doing.

Don’t confine your attention to maintenance excellence to your factory alone. Remember that supply chain velocity depends on the right levels of automation and the right support in facilities where goods are stored and moved, as well as where they’re manufactured.

For more information on Modern Material Handling’s findings from its first-annual Maintenance Study, click here

Karen Wilhelm has worked in the manufacturing industry for 25 years, and blogs at Lean Reflections, which has been named as one of the top ten lean blogs on the web.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a contributing author and not necessarily Gray Construction.