When does automation make sense in the warehouse? Gradations in warehouse automation

For many companies, the topic of warehouse/logistics automation is high on the agenda. But all beginnings are difficult and many rack their brains over which automation level is the right one for their warehouse logistics deployment scenario. We'll get to the bottom of this question and present you with the biggest differences between the various gradations. Warehouse processes can be automated to varying degrees and in different ways. For primary warehouse processes, such as putaway and order picking, a distinction is made between three automation levels, which are differentiated according to their degree of mechanization .

The three levels of automation:

1. manual warehouse

In a manual or conventional warehouse, all operations are performed by humans, for example with forklifts or lifting/transport equipment. At this warehouse automation level, warehouse automation only includes employee control via a warehouse management system (WMS, e.g. SAP EWM). This takes over the planning, optimization and control of all manual processes. For example, the warehouse management system takes into account the departure times of the truck and plans the upcoming picking tasks so that the right goods are ready at the right time at the right loading ramp. The employees receive instructions via screen displays (e.g. handheld or vehicle terminals), mobile devices, devices with voice recognition or data glasses.

2. partially automated warehouse

In a partially automated warehouse, only individual and not all work steps are automated to achieve economical operating processes. Depending on the application, partial automation may be a better fit for the given requirements than a manual or fully automated warehouse. For example, the following can be controlled and linked to the warehouse management system: narrow-aisle stackers, order pickers and reach trucks. A control system for narrow-aisle trucks, for example, makes it possible to automatically drive to the next picking location, so that employees no longer have to search, drive and maneuver themselves in this warehouse automation model.

Partially automated solutions such as warehouse lifts can significantly improve and accelerate processes, especially in cost-intensive order picking. A further expansion stage can also be innovative picking processes such as gesture-controlled picking (Pick-by-Motion®): These guide employees through the process even more intensively than classic methods such as Pick-by-Voice. Picking confirmation is possible with a simple gesture and keyboard or voice input is no longer required.

3. fully automated warehouse

In the third level of warehouse automation, a fully automated warehouse, no or at least comparatively few human operations are required. As a rule, these warehouses consist of racks and stacker cranes or shuttles that store and retrieve pallets, totes or cartons of goods fully automatically.

When you get right down to it, a warehouse where picking takes place cannot really be called a fully automated operation: after all, employees are still needed at the picking stations to put together the right number of items. However, the employees no longer have to go to the goods, because the goods come to them ("goods-to-person" principle). The complete automation of article picking is still very complex, for example, because of the different shapes and dimensions of the articles. However, such systems are already available for picking or case picking homogeneous items (e.g. Pick-by-Robot®). These innovations aim to automate even this last work step. Then we can really talk about full automation of the warehouse.


Depending on the application, different warehouse/logistics automation levels are suitable. Therefore, there is no one right choice. Companies often opt for a level of automation that is tailored to their individual needs: this can be a combination of manual, partially and/or fully automated systems. It is important to ensure that all operations are planned and controlled by a warehouse management system (such as SAP EWM) so that all the components used work together as a single system.

For more info on warehouse automation and logistics planning, visit www.igz.com/sap-automation/logistikplanung/.

For more info on the differences between automated and manual picking, see the blog post "Commissioning systems in comparison".

Curious or have questions about warehouse automation? If you are currently considering automating your intralogistics, feel free to contact us or join us live at one of our webinars. There you will gain insights into already realized projects and learn how we have solved demanding challenges in the logistics and production environment based on SAP standard software together with our customers.


In the whitepaper "Gradations in warehouse automation", you can obtain all the information on the subject of warehouse automation at a glance.

Group 14 PDF (7.5 MB)
Gradations in warehouse automation
From manual to fully automated warehouse
From manual to fully automated warehouse

In this white paper, we cover the different levels of warehouse automation and what makes them different. With this decision-making aid, you will be better able to weigh up which level will give you the best results in your warehouse. On p. 8, you can also find out more about picking robots that can be used flexibly - a promising topic that is already worth taking a closer look at today.


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Highlights from the whitepaper

  • Advantages of automating manual processes in the warehouse
  • Robot-controlled order picking: Pick-by-Robot®.
  • The different levels of warehouse automation
  • Decision criteria for warehouse automation measures
  • Important factors for deciding on the right warehouse automation measures