5 Questions to Ask Automation Suppliers to Avoid Costly Mistakes

Scott Carlin
Aug 16, 2023 12:31:27 PM


warehouse-supplierA recent report showed that companies are ramping up warehouse automation, with just over a quarter of companies expecting to have some kind of automation in place by 2027. This statistic shows that companies are aware that automation can unlock a variety of benefits for material handling operations. However, while automation projects can certainly offer an excellent ROI, picking the wrong supplier can also lay the groundwork for a lot to go awry.

Supplier selection can also be especially important for companies just beginning to implement automation. A bad first experience can sour the C-suite on future projects, despite big potential gains.  

How can you ensure your automation partner will not only help you avoid costly mistakes but will also help you improve your business? The best way is asking targeted questions during the sales process.

"Fantastic things are happening in the automation space, with a lot of potentially amazing companies leading the way," said Ryan Boyd, Vice President, Storage and Automation, TFS. "You need to do your homework, though, because not all of those suppliers will be ready with solutions or strategies to achieve your fleet management goals. That's why the process of vetting an automation supplier is so important."

Here are some questions to consider before shaking hands with an automation partner:

1. Does your supplier have the right kind of experience?

Automation is a hot tech space, attracting many start-ups and other innovators. While this certainly helps generate new ideas, it often means many automation suppliers are relatively new to the game. 

That makes it especially important to dig into whether potential suppliers have experience anticipating issues and responding with appropriate solutions. Ask them to provide examples detailing how they've handled setbacks in the past. 

"It's not a question of if there's are going to be problems with an automation implementation, but when," Boyd said. "Over the course of my career, I've learned about all the little things you need to watch out for, what obstacles to avoid, and how to ensure the mistakes that were made in the past didn't happen again."

2. Is the supplier brand-independent?

Translation: Are suppliers trying to solve your specific problem or are their solutions limited to the brands they offer? Brand-independent automation suppliers will ultimately have more flexibility since they can offer a wider variety of options from multiple suppliers. 

You may have heard the saying, "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." This is often the case with start-ups and leasing companies that offer only certain brands. While their solution could very well be the answer to your problem, be sure to dig deeper and ask lots of questions. 

"For example, TFS's brand-independent approach gives us—and our customers—more flexibility and allows us to move with supply chain market conditions," Boyd said. "It allows us to look across all the suppliers and consider all the variables, like price, availability, and lead times.

3. How is their customer service?

Customer service is often an afterthought, but it's extremely important. If an automated solution has an issue, Boyd pointed out that you need to have confidence that your supplier will respond—and help—quickly. 

 "Some automation suppliers are really, really good at supporting their product. At TFS, we gravitate towards them because we know they will better support our end users," Boyd said. "On the other hand, some companies are really bad—even deceptive—about things like support and lead times."

Ask potential suppliers about their average time to resolve issues; also talk to current customers, if possible.

4. Does the supplier truly know the automation space? 

Ask how closely your supplier follows the industry and any developments. Are they keeping tabs on supplier lead times? Availability? Cost? Are they taking an unbiased look at their suppliers' reputations and experience? For example, if they work with start-ups, how do they evaluate the supplier to ensure they'll be around long enough to support their products? 

"It's not enough to be able to offer the latest, shiny automation tool. Suppliers need to know the full story and sift through important considerations to arrive at the best solution for this specific corner of the industry," Boyd said. "There's a lot of data to wrap your head around."

So much, in fact, that TFS issues a weekly internal report summarizing automation suppliers' lead time, throughput, availability, cost, and customer service. Boyd said they've found it the most effective way to keep in front of a constantly expanding industry.

5. Does the supplier understand the fleet management space? 

Fleet management is a complex operation that ties together cost, efficiency, and safety. For that reason, it often isn't well understood even by other departments in a corporation. If your initiative is going to be successful, your supplier should understand both fleet management and automation. 

"Automation is part of your total facility solution, so it must be considered holistically," says Boyd. "That's why every effective engagement must begin with an assessment."

In other words, suppliers must visit the facility to assess the current process. That's the only way to truly understand where automation solutions would be most effective.

"Usually, the first thing we do to prepare clients is documenting the many different steps involved in receiving, processing, and pushing orders out the door," Boyd said. "Once you understand those processes and have them on paper, then you can figure out what steps are repeatable and what makes sense to automate."

Sometimes, he added, an assessment demonstrates that certain companies are just not ready to make the jump to automation.

 "Some facilities come to us asking for automation but they're still doing everything, even basic inventory tracking, on paper," Boyd said. "In that case, an inventory management system would be the first step, so all that knowledge isn't just in everyone's heads. Let's deal with the lower-hanging fruit first and ramp up to a place where automation will really pay off."

Many companies are eager to jump into automation projects—and with good reason, since the payoff can be big in terms of cost, uptime, and safety. However, if your company is just dipping its toe into the waters for the first time, it's especially important to partner with a supplier that will help you start out strong. 

As you've probably gathered, asking pertinent questions will ensure you find a supplier focused on solving your company's specific problems. If it feels as though you're not getting the response you hoped for, it may be time to cast a wider net.  

TFS Fleet Assessment