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Automation proving buoyant during the pandemic

SHD Logistics' staff writer Olaf Jensen reports on the position of automation during the pandemic.

Investment in automation is set to increase in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. With many firms set to continue struggling in its aftermath, automation is increasingly seen as a viable direction of travel by industry leaders. That’s according to a survey of senior leaders and decision makers in automation, logistics, and other industries by Honeywell.

The survey doesn’t make for happy reading, with only 26% of respondents saying their company is fully prepared to withstand the negative economic impacts of COVID-19. However, the pandemic is driving a new push towards automation, with two thirds of respondents expecting their company to increase investment in automation over the next few years; rather than the threat it is commonly portrayed as, 79% of respondents believe investment in automation is important for their firms to remain competitive.

This is certainly the opinion of the UK Warehouse Association’s Peter Ward. Writing for SHD last week, he suggested “automation and robotics […] will likely define the future of our industry”, and that embracing these new trends is key to remaining competitive in the post-COVID world.

Honeywell also revealed a similar appetite in the United States, with more than half of American companies said to be willing to invest in automation technology. According to its research, eCommerce (66%), grocery, food and beverage (59%) and logistics (55%) are the sectors most eager to embrace the new technology.

Although COVID-19 is driving a new interest in automation among the logistics sector, this is just the latest chapter in an ongoing story. Automation is fast becoming the bread and butter of warehousing and logistics, with warehouse execution software, order picking technology and robotic solutions among the most widely implemented solutions.

Illustrating the buoyancy in the automation sector, robotics manufacturer AutoStore recently released in 2019 financial results. It reports revenues of £195 million—a 36% increase on the previous year. AutoStore is anticipating a bright future of the market, with “micro fulfilment centres” set to be the next big trend for the retail and food sectors in Europe and the United States.

Indeed, several stories from the last few weeks seem to demonstrate this rapid growth and the increasing opportunities automation presents.

For instance, a consortium of automation specialists has come together to launch a new foray into the warehouse automation market. 4Automation claims to “bring a fresh and modern approach to conveyor and automated materials handling projects” to “provide full turnkey solutions for warehouse automation, e-commerce, manufacturing and logistics assignments.” This new project represents the dynamism within the wider automation market, even during the pandemic; indeed, the project is aiming to leverage the huge growth in eCommerce that has emerged from the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Meanwhile, German-based organic retailer Alnatura has partnered with Swisslog to centralise the flow of goods to its new sustainable distribution centre in Lorsch, Germany. This installation brings together storage, conveyors, picking robots, software control and more.

Then there’s the partnership between logistics automation company Geek+ and sporting goods retailer Decathlon, which has sought to radically accelerate its warehouse automation programme with goods-to-person robotics. The Geek+ system has helped Decathlon achieve 24/7 automated operations in its Shanghai warehouse, triple average labour productivity, increase inventory capacity by 40% and secure RoI in under three years. This huge success demonstrates the incredible potential of automation.

The automation sector’s rapid growth has new technology at its heart. At the beginning of July, the GEBHARDT Intralogistics Group announced the launch of the SpeedSorter, a new smart sorting technology based on the crossbelt sorter principle.

It’s by no means the only major product launch in the last few weeks: Brillopak launched the new Dual Crate DESTAKer for feeding empty retail crates to food packing lines at high speed. The product can de-stack two stacks simultaneously, enabling handling of 18 crates per minute—a substantial improvement on Brillopak’s earlier line.

Logistics has proven itself an essential industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, and automation has been a key part of its success. With robotics and automation continuing to grow and innovative even during the current crisis, and the potential of automation to keep industries active and competitive during the lockdown, its increasingly becoming clear that logistics firms are embracing that to remain ahead of the competition.

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