3PL automation increases throughput and reduces errors in warehousing

3PL automation and how it’s transforming logistics warehouses

16 May 2024

3PL automation plays a key role in logistics warehousing, improving operational efficiency, accuracy and speed. With the growing demand for fast, reliable services, automation has become an essential tool for third-party logistics (3PL) providers.

3PL logistics refers to the logistics services a company subcontracts to a supplier. They can include storage, order picking and product transport.

Carl Marcus Wallenburg, Professor of Logistics at the WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management, identifies the trends that will shape the future of 3PLs: “Technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, the Internet of Things, augmented reality and blockchain are empowering 3PLs to enhance their operational speed and responsiveness.”

Benefits of 3PL warehouse automation

More and more 3PLs are investing in automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) because of their multiple advantages:

  • Increased productivity. Robotic systems can operate 24/7, significantly ramping up throughput and reducing logistics providers’ response times.
  • Efficient order fulfilment. Automated technology minimises human errors in 3PL warehouses, making order picking, consolidation and shipping more accurate.
  • Optimised inventory management. Automated systems provide real-time tracking of stock belonging to various clients. They know the specific processes each client requests and their respective time frames.
  • Enhanced safety. Automation reduces the risk of accidents, creating safer work environments.
  • Greater transparency. Digitalisation strengthens relationships between logistics providers and their clients. It grants each client transparent and restricted access to information on the stock it owns.

3PL warehouse automation solutions

The market features a wide array of 3PL solutions that cater to each process, the needs of each logistics service provider and their respective clients.

  • Conveyors. 3PL warehouses produce a large number of goods movements that can be automated with pallet or box conveyors. Electric monorails, transfer cars, autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are other types of logistics automation solutions.
  • Stacker cranes. Logistics providers with a high pace of work can install stacker cranes for pallets or boxes to automate product storage and retrieval for their clients. This variety of automatic handling equipment moves vertically and horizontally along the aisles, inserting and removing products from their locations.
  • Robotic arms. This solution facilitates order picking in 3PL warehouses that manage heavy loads. The robots resemble a human arm, as they contain components that carry out rotational and translational movements. Robotic arms can operate completely independently (e.g., pick and place robots, which are outfitted with a computer vision system). Alternatively, they can work together with operators.
  • Automated truck loading systems (ATLS). Also known as automatic truck loading and unloading systems, ATLS perform this operation robotically, requiring minimal human intervention.
  • Logistics software. Implementing a warehouse management system such as Mecalux’s Easy WMS is vital for coordinating a 3PL facility. Capable of working for many clients in one or more warehouses, this software effectively manages a large variety of SKUs. Moreover, it organises shipping with the various carriers integrated into the software.
Stacker cranes for boxes streamline product storage and shipping in 3PL warehouses
Stacker cranes for boxes streamline product storage and shipping in 3PL warehouses

Real examples of 3PL automation

Logistics provider Luís Simões has a modern centre near Madrid, Spain, where it stores around 100,000 pallets and manages more than 4,000 orders a day. At the heart of this facility is an automated warehouse featuring the Automated Pallet Shuttle with transfer cars from Mecalux. This AS/RS acts as a buffer, organising, sequencing and scheduling prepared orders for distribution. Our company’s Easy WMS software coordinates all processes in Luís Simões’ automated warehouse.

Another example of 3PL logistics automation is the multinational HAVI. Its complex in Portugal is divided into three areas, operating at ambient, refrigerated and frozen (-20 °C) temperatures. HAVI installed two AS/RS from Mecalux in its facility. The Automated Pallet Shuttle houses high-turnover SKUs such as hamburgers, potatoes and chicken products. The second AS/RS features a stacker crane that handles ketchup, mayonnaise, toys, packaging, bottled water and other beverages.

Logiscor is a 3PL provider charged with performing the logistics operations of Supermercados Piedra, a Spanish supermarket chain. It modernised its centre in the city of Córdoba to adapt to omnichannel and to the increase in its client’s online sales. To achieve this, it installed an AS/RS for boxes with two pick stations and a put-to-light system. Automation enables the automatic movement of over 400 boxes. Additionally, through Easy WMS, it provides complete traceability of 1,500 SKUs.

Digitalisation of management is another clear example of 3PL automation. In Colombia, 3PL provider Megafin digitalised its logistics centre with Easy WMS to manage a broad range of products — poultry, pork, ice cream, vegetables and pulps, primarily — owned by 30-plus clients. The company’s main challenge is to store each item at the correct temperature and distribute it at the right time. Thanks to the software, Megafin can organise its goods taking into account their type, sell-by date and ideal storage temperature. It also communicates seamlessly with clients, informing them of their inventory status.

Logistics provider HAVI automated its 3PL warehouse with two AS/RS for pallets
Logistics provider HAVI automated its 3PL warehouse with two AS/RS for pallets

Transforming logistics: the era of 3PL automation

3PL warehouse automation is clearly revolutionising the operations of logistics service providers. It is a game changer in terms of efficiency, accuracy and speed in storage and distribution operations.

3PL providers that adopt these technologies won’t just survive today’s competitive environment — they’ll thrive, paving the way towards a more agile, resilient and sustainable logistics industry. If you’re a 3PL service provider looking to reap the benefits of automation, contact us. At Mecalux, we have vast experience helping 3PL companies meet their clients logistics needs.

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