The "Amazon effect" can be seen in all parts of the supply chain, but much of the pressure is placed on warehouse managers struggling to find skilled labor to fulfill the mass amount of online orders. A recent report from CBRE states e-commerce is creating demand for an additional 452,000 warehouse and distribution workers in 2018-19.
Between today’s tight labor market and the growing volume of e-commerce sales, automation is becoming an increasingly appealing way for the industry to reduce costs, increase speed, improve pick accuracy and to fulfill demanding high-turnover jobs.
Automated systems are highly independent, but they can’t move goods through the supply chain alone. To best reap automation’s benefits, it’s important to remember that automated equipment is constantly interacting with packaging to get products from point A to point B. This packaging is just as important to business success as the equipment itself; however, many companies are still using wood pallets or fiber corrugated boxes, which can be dimensionally inconsistent and can cause costly system downtime.
The packaging industry, in particular, has played a key role in the automation boom. It is creating innovative solutions, such as reusable plastic packaging, which include features that make moving through commonly used automated systems easier, repeatable and more effective. Reusable packaging provides a consistent and reliable solution for an automated system’s precise needs, making automation as productive and efficient as it was intended to be.
Reusable totes, bulk containers and pallets are used to safely and efficiently move, store and distribute product along different points of the supply chain and ultimately to its destination. Of its many advantages, the following three benefits of reusable packaging are most significant to automation:
- Standardized size ensures operation consistency.The standardized dimensions of reusable packaging mean it will consistently move through the system without jams, reducing costly stops and delays in production. This is significant, as organizations can lose hundreds of thousands of dollars when an automated system is stopped. The smooth, contoured surfaces of reusable packaging, including reusable pallets and totes, are free of nails and loose corrugated flaps, preventing any halts within a high-speed automated system.
Reusable packaging is dimensionally consistent for repeat performance in automation. By design, reusable packaging products are easy to handle and interface effortlessly with all types of high-speed automated equipment. In fact, some products are specially designed to be "hands-free" and solely handled by robots or conveyors.
- Plastic doesn’t shed system-interfering debris. Plastic packaging doesn’t create dust and other debris that can build up in the automated system and cause jams — leading to costly shutdowns. The smooth design of reusable plastic packaging makes it free from protruding nails, loose boards and staples that are common with alternative pallets, for example, and can interfere with high-speed automated systems.
- Design features that accommodate multiple automation types. Reusable packaging offers design features and capabilities to optimize fully or partially automated systems. These features include molded-in lifting tabs; dividability; flat label areas that can be read by sensors; smooth exteriors; and reinforced bottoms, upper rims and bumpers to travel seamlessly through high-speed systems.
With the wide range of reusable packaging solutions for automated systems, companies should consider a third-party packaging partner that can customize a solution for your automated system to meet your functional needs. A third-party partner can help audit your current system and help initiate new thinking or out-of-the-box solutions to help you identify packaging that aligns with the application and the way your system operates.
Considering the tight labor market and influx of e-commerce sales, the automation boom doesn’t seem to be quieting down any time soon, and the technology will continue to play a greater role in supply chains. The packaging used to carry goods throughout supply chain systems will have a greater significance too. Automating and optimizing supply chains can create competitive advantages for companies that can successfully implement them with the correct systems. As you design your automated system and advance your supply chain capabilities, explore what reusable packaging can do to make your system run as smooth as possible.