Automation innovation: warehouse of the future

Posted on 24 Sep 2016 by The Manufacturer

The uptake of new innovative automation technologies is becoming far more widespread. Andrew Hoyle, head of automation at third-party logistics and supply chain solutions provider, Wincanton, explains.

Robots are no longer solely found on the production line of automotive factories, performing repetitive tasks for those with deep pockets.

A new generation of innovative, affordable, flexible, collaborative robots have broken out of their safety cages and can now be found everywhere – from multinationals down to start-ups and SMEs – engaged in a diverse spread of applications across the supply chain for a variety of industries.

Wincanton - Automation innovation: warehouse of the future Blog
If manufacturers and service providers continue to work together, new innovations can be effectively and efficiently built into a business – image courtesy of Wincanton.

And it’s not just robotics. From automatic conveyors through to smart sensors, telematics and mobile applications, automated technologies have come a long way in recent years and the pace of change shows no signs of slowing down.

Strides are even being made in autonomous picking and packing, which for a long time has been too difficult for machines to master.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, by 2018 global sales of industrial robots will see annual growth of 15%, with the number of units sold doubling to around 400,000.

A large number of those are being used in manufacturing, as shown by Hennik Research’s latest Annual Manufacturing Report, which pointed to just under two-thirds of UK manufacturing businesses having committed to major automation projects in the past two years.

Annual Manufacturing Report 2016 - Front CoverThe same report demonstrated the positive effects that we also see time and time again across our automated sites nationwide.

Hennik’s research showed 60% of respondents thought their working conditions and job satisfaction had improved as a result of their most recent automation project; while some 44% said that jobs had been preserved and nearly one-fifth (18%) reported that new jobs had been created.

This is an important finding and one that’s borne out from our own experience at Wincanton – the future of warehouse automation, as we see it, is a place where humans and machines will work more closely together.

Far from taking away jobs, it’s not only creating them, it’s making them more highly skilled – to work alongside a robot, training is vital.

Of course, automative technologies are not new to the warehouse and at Wincanton, we’ve been operating effective automated solutions across a range of sectors for more than 20 years.

What has changed in recent years is the ‘smart’ nature of the latest innovations. These often combine a variety of hardware and software solutions – from automated conveyors through to smart sensors, industrial robots, telematics and mobile applications.

Robot Hand Shaking Human Hand
Far from taking away jobs, automation is not only creating them, it’s making them more highly skilled.

The net effect is that efficiency, service reliability, safety and productivity all have the potential to improve across the board as innovations in picking, packing, and shipping processes become more advanced.

And the good news is that the uptake of these innovative technologies is becoming far more widespread.

In the past, it was often the case that smaller operations struggled to justify the investment in getting automation up and running, but we’re now seeing connected and automated technologies becoming far more accessible and affordable.

They’re also easier to implement – electronic devices are smaller, controls are able to act via wireless communication, batteries last longer and recharge faster.

Ultimately, it’s customer demand and changing expectations that are driving the need for manufacturers to adopt automated technologies.


However, it goes without saying that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to designing and implementing what can be very complex automated systems.

What works for one business can often not work at all for another. Design has to be informed by capacity and individual business challenges and strategies.

It can also be hard for a business to keep on top of the latest developments in automated technology and how they might be integrated within existing systems. As a result, many manufacturers are now working in close collaboration with third party logistics providers to cherry-pick the best elements of these new technologies.

Inevitably, in 10 years’ time the manufacturing sector is going to look very different to the one we see today. What will remain constant, however, is the importance of collaboration and partnership – this is what keeps businesses growing in the long run.

When it comes to the warehouse and the wider supply chain, so long as manufacturers and service providers continue to work together, new innovations can be effectively and efficiently built into a business.

And the prize for getting this right is huge. Early and effective adoption of new innovations in this space will be key to forward-facing manufacturers maintaining their competitive edge and meeting their customers’ needs in the years ahead.