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Challenging Prejudices about automation

Automation is expensive, only worthwhile for large companies and creates dependencies on certain manufacturers - at least these are the prejudices that persist and that we at KION encounter time and again. Here, two of our biggest automation experts reveal which rumors are true and which are more or less myths.


In the first part of our article, Gunter Van Deun and Frank Heptner - two of the KION Group's leading automation experts - dispelled five widespread myths and explained, for example, why repairing and maintaining highly complex automated systems is nowhere near as complex and costly as one would generally expect. Here is the second part about typical fears in automation: which fears are true, and which are simply unfounded?

Fear number 6: Automation is expensive!

It's probably the most common fear you hear in connection with automation projects: it's all far too expensive! After all, you need many hours of time and many specialists for the planning alone. And you certainly can't buy fully automated systems at a bargain price – can you? Our KION experts say: You have to look at the total costs.

“This fear is partly justified,” admits our automation expert Frank Heptner: “There is always a major investment at the start of an automation project.” However, the investment in good project planning is worthwhile - because with good planning, the acquisition quickly pays for itself during operation, in the truest sense of the word. Automation means significant increases in productivity, quality, and efficiency. The supposedly high initial costs therefore quickly lead to a return on investment.

What's more, companies no longer have to cover the acquisition costs immediately and all at once. “There are also leasing models where the investment costs are spread over several years,” says Frank Heptner. This means that automation projects can be easily financed for the vast majority of companies.

Fear Number 7: Automation is only suitable for large companies

When it comes to automated warehouses, most people immediately think of global players who have to transport, store and retrieve millions of products every day and get them ready for dispatch. Everyone immediately believes that automation is worthwhile for mail order companies, furniture manufacturers or beverage producers. But what about small and medium-sized companies? For them, it still pays to rely on manual processes - right?

“I completely disagree,” says Gunter Van Deun. According to the automation expert from KION, the focus in recent years has often been on large companies. But things have changed in the meantime: “If a small company has tasks that are constantly repeated, automation is also worthwhile here,” says Van Deun.

Technically, the implementation of small automation projects is now increasingly simple, says Van Deun. However, for an optimal return on investment, the daily operating time must be taken into account. “Our systems are designed to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” explains the expert. For a single-shift operation, it will therefore take quite a while before the decision to automate also has a positive financial impact.

Fear Number 8: You lose flexibility with automation

In manually operated warehouses, creative chaos sometimes reigns: everyone moves as they please - at least if no forklift guidance system is in use. This means that goods sometimes get lost or have to be searched for if they have been placed somewhere other than where they were intended. But there are also undeniable advantages: You can decide quickly and flexibly whether you want to store a pallet in this hall or in another hall. This flexibility is completely lost through automation - or at least that's what you would expect. Is that true?

“Yes, that's partly true,” says our automation expert Frank Heptner. Automated systems are actually less flexible. The processes are predetermined and run in exactly the same way - unless they are programmed differently. From the expert's point of view, however, automation makes up for this supposed disadvantage with many advantages: nothing ever gets lost in the automated warehouse, there is perfect order and the company always knows exactly which goods are stored in exactly which place.

“As we plan the workflows in close consultation with our customers, every automation project corresponds exactly to the needs and conditions on site,” says expert Frank Heptner. Adjustments can also be made easily at a later date – for example, if a company grows and the throughput of a system needs to be increased. In this respect, automation projects are very flexible.

Fear Number 9: Automation makes you dependent on the manufacturer

In automation projects, clients and manufacturers usually work together on a long-term basis, sometimes even over several decades. This means that you are at the mercy of the supplier – at least that is a common assumption. Is that really true?

Yes, admits our expert Gunter Van Deun: “You decide on a particular technology and then work with the provider of that technology.” Specialist knowledge is required for installation, repair, maintenance and adaptation, which is usually only available to the provider's employees. “However, I don't see this as a dependency, but as a partnership,” Van Deun continues: “You develop solutions together, adapt them to changes if necessary and generally work together in a spirit of trust.”

The conversation took place in Antwerp

Lots of light, lots of wood, lots of step, and almost no walls: This is what characterizes the KION office building in Antwerp, Belgium. In a huge open-plan office that extends over several floors, experts from many different countries work on their computers or sit together with colleagues in one of the many meeting spots. This is one of the most important control centers, especially for mobile automation solutions from the KION Group and its brands Linde Material Handling, Dematic, and STILL. This is where we met for a chat with Gunter Van Deun and Frank Heptner - watch the full version here.

Fear Number 10: Automation means you lose control of the warehouse

In a manual warehouse, a person can look everywhere and know the contents of every box. But when a computer makes the decisions and the goods are stored at a height of 40 meters, humans lose the overview and control. At least that's a common cliché about automation. Is that true? No, says our KION expert Frank Heptner.

“The opposite is true,” says Heptner: “Only automation gives a company the opportunity to have a complete overview and full transparency of the processes in a warehouse.” This is because the system knows exactly where a particular pallet is at any given time. As an operator, you are therefore in control at all times – even remotely via smartphone, tablet or laptop thanks to software control.

The fear of losing control through automation is therefore completely unfounded. In this and a previous article, we took a close look at ten assertions and prejudices about automation in intralogistics. Our KION experts Gunter Van Deun and Frank Heptner were able to substantiate them with their explanations and reasoning: Many widespread fears are exaggerated or untrue. It is therefore worth taking a closer look and questioning your own (pre)judgments - not only, but especially when it comes to automation.