Companies are on the path to manufacturing production and warehouse storage efficiencies through the use of ever more sophisticated automation. This may include robotic picking, laser-guided vehicles, miniload systems or large cart- or crane-based automated storage systems.

While it will always be important to manage your operations with a series of appropriate KPIs and labor management tools, there is a transition in thought process needed when automation takes over more and more tasks.

A traditional manual operation has a wide margin of error built into the processes and the management of those processes. If you make a mistake planning the sequence of an order or in how you allocate your staff in a human-dominated operation, it is relatively easy to move some of your staff around, set the current order to the side and reorder the work being done.

You can see this need by monitoring the status of orders vs. the schedule in each part of the operation or through a review of your labor management tools. In a manual operation, you can react and move people to other tasks to adjust the capacity of a function.

The downside to a manual operation is higher labor costs, more people to manage and supervise, more heavy mobile equipment to manage and maintain and possibly more opportunities for accidents involving spills, crashes, etc. For these and other reasons, many companies are eyeing a future with more automated processes.

In many operations, a high degree of automation clearly has a strong financial payback. To get that payback, you have to utilize the equipment you purchase in the most efficient manner possible. Starting up front with the design of the operation, you must establish your processes so all the components — automated or not — work together to achieve the results expected.

When you move to a highly-automated environment, your margin for error in the design of the equipment, the capacity you maintain and the mix of work you perform is much tighter. The more you automate, the tighter it gets.

For example, when you have a wide-aisle selective rack layout, you are spending many man-hours moving your product around. When you are slow, you use fewer forklift drivers; when you are busy, you add drivers.

In some operations those wide aisles even serve as staging or overflow lanes. If you move to a narrow-aisle operation, your ability to add drivers drops significantly, and using those aisles for staging or overflow will bring you to a stop. In this instance, your planning must improve to avoid sequencing errors that can lead to lost time or delayed orders.

Fully automating your pallet storage requires advanced planning to build your facility for your heaviest day — or close to it, depending on your philosophy. During operation, your margin for error gets even tighter. It will require that you sequence the work to be done in the correct manner.

You can't stage in an aisle, and your overflow needs to be part of your design. It will be difficult to "drop everything and fill this order," and you certainly cannot add seasonal operators to pick from an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS).

That being said, with careful advanced planning, including the use of good data to plan the automation, you can minimize or even eliminate those last-minute crunches that can be so costly to the bottom-line of your operation.

However, to make your automated system run efficiently, you need to hire the right talent. An operation geared more toward the manual side of the scale should be managed by a person who can see the flow, knows the trends of the people doing the work and is comfortable working with last-minute demands: perhaps a person more like a coach.

In a highly-automated operation (including those with high-end warehouse management systems), daily work flows are created using a series of algorithms that must be flexible enough to adapt to the mix and volume of each day, while maximizing the effectiveness of the equipment. When you make that move, it is likely the coach will need a new player with a special skill.

This new player may be like the kid you knew who could always solve Rubik's Cube. This person may be led by the coach, but will really become the backbone of the operation. They will be the one called on to solve the puzzle of how to best manage the day and how to find a way to squeeze that special order in somehow in the middle of a planned automated day.

That person not only selects the correct algorithm for the volume and season, but also analyzes the patterns and helps develop the new algorithms (most likely with input from the automation or WMS provider) to make the operation even better.

To sum it up: The more manual processes you maintain, the larger your margin of error. With a wide margin, the coach can direct overall flows and can easily direct the next movement in a planned day. The more automated you get, the smaller your margin of error. With narrow tolerances, the coach is going to need that special skill player that will be closer to your Rubik's genius.

When you start your search for automation, get your engineers involved early, get the best read available on your future requirements to be certain you are planning for the right capacity.

At the same time you are doing that, start your search early both internally and externally to find that key new skilled player to make sure everything runs as needed every day. This cannot be done too soon. You will also want to interview your potential automation supplier to see what type of special people they have on staff to help teach your existing and new staff the best way to solve the daily puzzles.

Advanced planning on the front end, along with careful selection of the right players will yield great efficiencies in your operation, make your move to automation much smoother and help you build for success.