Starting on a new warehouse automation project can be a complex process. From allocating the necessary funds to corroborating with key team members, it’s not unusual for automation projects to take months to approve before any work is even completed.
You may be in the very early stages of ideation and development and are doing actively doing research on specific systems or solutions. Just a wild guess if you’re currently reading this.
Luckily, you’re in the right place. Century Conveyor Systems has completed thousands of warehouse automation projects, and acutely understands this deliberation phase. Careful planning, goal-setting, and defining the scope of your project is paramount at this stage.
You may already have all those points identified, and if so, great! Simply getting started is half the battle.
But now that you’re close to your automation system becoming a reality, you may ask yourself; “How does a warehouse automation project process typically unfold anyway?”
To preface, no two warehouses are the same. Each system is uniquely engineered to fit the warehouse’s size, products handled, functions, and operations. A specific project timeline is created for each and can vary drastically.
The process described in this article is generally what we’ve experienced across all our projects.
- Initial Connection
- Site Visit
- Approval and Sourcing
- Equipment Shipping
- Controls Integration
- Final Testing
- Ongoing Service and Support
The very first step is to source and select a material handling integrator. This can almost be an entire process in itself, as integrators can vary by size, what industry they serve, what systems they engineer for, etc. Many companies will submit a proposal for integrators to bid for or connect with a few choice ones and assess which would be the best fit.
Regardless of the method you’re using to source your automation vendor, an initial conversation would outline the basics of your current warehouse setup, specifics about the products being handled, and what solutions you’d like to see implemented. Other questions may include project timing, previous experience with automation, and whether the project is funded or not (a big one).
The representative may send you an information sheet to fill out. This sheet may have more specific information, like carton minimum and maximum, warehouse ambient temperatures, current voltages, and more.
One of the most important pieces of information is a current warehouse drawing. This blueprint (a CAD diagram) conveys a wealth of information to the integrator. If you’re in this stage, make sure you have a drawing on hand to share.
Once enough questions have been answered, another call with a project manager or sales engineer may occur. This will be your main contact point throughout the entirety of the project and will share preliminary pricing and project information with you.
To accurately engineer, design, and price an automation system, a site visit is required to see the current state of the warehouse. This is to observe how day-to-day operations play out, take measurements or pictures, and view equipment in person. Typically, a project manager and a lead engineer will be the individuals who travel to your facility.
A site visit is an excellent time to walk the warehouse floor and follow the process stream of your operations, pointing out functions and commenting on what updates you’d like to see as part of the project. This will enable the integrator party to ask specific questions or take notes.
The more answers that are provided at the start of the project, the less time it takes to approve on-site drawings.
Once a site visit is completed, your integrator can start developing engineering drawings for the future system.
A system drawing is a CAD design document that shows a top-down view of your entire warehouse, complete with diagrams of where automation systems will be installed. Diagrams will label the type of system being used, provide measurements, and list product flow information.
Here’s what a common system drawing looks like:
If needed, certain sections can be expanded upon as an addendum to the full system drawing:
A system drawing is a guiding document for the entirety of the project, so it’s vitally important that it reflects the goals, limitations, and wants of your warehouse. This may mean that multiple rounds of revisions on the drawing may take place (Century’s record is 97 rounds!) before a design is settled on.
Approval and Sourcing
Once the drawing is finalized, a proposal will be created by the integrator, detailing all aspects of the project.
This may include:
- The final drawing
- A description of how the new system will operate
- Carton, tote, and pallet measurements
- Equipment used and specifications
- Installation details
- Schedules and timelines
- Pricing information
- Agreement terms
After you review and approve of the quote, the process of making your system a reality begins. The automation equipment selected in the proposal will be sourced and ordered, coordinated by the project manager.
Typically, the longest part of your automation project is waiting for your equipment to be manufactured and shipped to you. Depending on the size of your system and what’s ordered, this can take anywhere from 8 to 24 weeks (sometimes longer depending on demand).
As your equipment is delivered to your warehouse, it’ll be stored off to the side so that it doesn’t interfere with your daily operations.
Once all the equipment has been delivered, the installation phase of the project can start.
Unless you’re using your own installation team, your integrator will send out a project manager and a lead engineer along with the installation team to supervise. Using the drawings, the mechanical equipment will be gradually installed. This may include tearing out older systems or equipment to make room for the updates.
In Century’s experience, an average system will take about a week to mechanically install. Once all the equipment is in place, the electrical installation team will start their work. Their job centers around providing power to all automation, and connecting the necessary systems together with the provided electrical hardware and voltages.
Last but definitely not least, panels are programmed and installed to enable system control functionality. Panels are fabricated according to the systems used and provide essential operations.
This allows operators to control the newly installed system, from simple emergency stop buttons to capturing shipping manifest information in a database.
Along with your system controls, this is the phase of the project when WMS, WCS, and ERP platforms are developed and integrated into your system. Whatever warehouse software you have (or are implementing) will be linked with the automation and a testing phase will begin.
Validation and testing of your automation system is the final phase of the project. Once all components are installed and in working order, various pressure tests will be done to ensure everything is working as intended.
Typically, testing is a two-week period so the system gets a chance to run for a prolonged period of time. Depending on the solution and your integration contract, training can be held for any employees that work with the system. Through this, any errors can be corrected, and fine-tuning can be done so that your product flow is consistent and reliable.
Once testing and training is complete, the system is ready. Being turnkey, this means you can start it as soon as you want. Any materials left over from the project (crating, waste, old equipment) are removed from your facility and disposed of accordingly.
At this point, the project is considered complete.
Ongoing Service and Support
Depending on the capabilities of your integrator, many offer support services for your system once it’s been installed.
This may come in the form of:
- Preventative maintenance agreements
- Spare parts ordering
- Emergency repair service
- VPN troubleshooting hotline
Even once the project is finished, most integrators will maintain communication with you to make sure your system is always running smoothly. Century provides all of the above support services for conveyors, but keep in mind that other integrators that have a maintenance department might only support specific systems.
Congratulations! You are now the proud owner of an efficient and powerful automation system. The process may seem complex when seeing it step-by-step, but any integrator worth its salt can expertly coordinate and manage your warehouse project efficiently. Looking for exactly that? We’ve been integrating automation for over 40 years and are experts at taking your facility to the next level. Check out our case studies to get an idea of our experience.