The rules for automated material handling project justification have changed thanks to a down economy. Find out how companies can survive just by calculating, evaluating and justifying certain costs.

The Great Recession has not only eroded so many jobs and offered extremely limited job opportunities during the slow recovery, but it also effected how companies are now justifying capital projects. The scars of the economic downfall will probably be visible for quite a while, which is why the rules required to approve an automation project within the warehouse or distribution center have changed for the foreseeable future.  Recognizing the new rules for justification will not only help the process of continuous improvement within a company’s operations, but will also help minimize risk of negatively impacting the bottom line when deciding if a project is worth the investment.

Cost savings vs. cost avoidance
By definition, cost savings means reducing current costs while cost avoidance means reducing to possibility of incurring future costs. When companies were reacting to the falling economy, the emphasis on automated material handling project justification was cost savings. Typically, this was done by installing equipment that replaced existing labor, therefore, the associated labor savings would pay for the cost of the equipment in one to three years. The result of companies laying off workers due to decreased demand or because they implemented automation projects was that they became as lean as possible, which was a good strategy for most. However, with hardly any labor costs remaining to use cost savings as primary justification, we are now shifting focus to cost avoidance.

Since the worst of the recession is most likely behind us, distributors are not only trying to fulfill orders with their current workforce, but also planning on slow growth scenarios and the associated challenges. It is safe to say that most front line or mid-level managers are a little gun shy about requesting to add to the workforce in preparation for future growth. A more acceptable alternative would be to provide an argument to avoid adding labor by automating some processes. Psychologically, it is probably a little easier for management to accept investing in automated equipment as opposed to investing in people, especially since so many of these managers had to go through the painful layoff process and don’t want to put themselves in a position to have to do it all over again. Since you can’t fire a conveyor system, just run it less often, then find means to avoid hiring labor but still adapt to growth, which provides the justification advantage.

Known costs vs. unknown costs
Whether you agree or disagree with the strategy that the administration has adopted in order to react to the recession, what’s done is done and the results must be understood. The country is in a debt position. The long and complex healthcare reform and the financial reform bills were passed and signed in to legislation. The Social Security system is operating with a deficit budget and is in need of a major revamp. The unemployment level is extremely high and the unemployment benefits have been extended numerous times.

How do we process the effects of all of these situations? The best answer is to look at it as high a level as possible. In the most general sense, the government will more than likely react by increasing taxes of some sort to overcome deficit spending, decrease the debt and put the Social Security system back on a sustainable track. At the same time, the government will find ways for companies to buy capital equipment in order to stimulate the manufacturing industry within the country and create jobs. In other words, the government will target job growth at the manufacturing level and not the distribution level since distribution is mostly downstream in the supply chain, and there are more high skill jobs in manufacturing compared to distribution. In essence, the government’s focus on increasing employment will be where adding value to products is highest, which is typically at the manufacturing level and not in the finished goods distribution.  

In understanding these two high level tactics, it’s possible that we know more about expenses associated with capital equipment compared to expenses associated with future employee costs. Using normal equipment depreciation schedules along with conservative maintenance budgets, the annual costs for capital equipment is known and stable. In fact, the probability that the administration will provide tax advantages to those businesses that invest in capital equipment is pretty high in order to increase domestic manufacturing demand and decrease the unemployment figures. Conversely, the costs associated with adding employees in businesses today are a little more difficult to grasp as there are so many unknowns in our future environment based on the current economic situation. Healthcare costs, additional Social Security taxes, unemployment taxes, payroll taxes and other employee-related costs are potential liabilities that when compared to capital equipment, are far more unknown and thereby add risk to the strategy of avoiding future costs.

Return on investment, interest related calculations vs. the traditional payback method
Traditionally, companies used the most basic method to calculate the return on investment (ROI) and financially justify a capital project by simply performing a payback method. This was done by dividing the cost of the project by the annual cost savings that the project provided. This resulted in a number of years that the project would pay itself back and for most companies, the threshold was somewhere near two to three years.  

Nowadays, the financial conditions are much different than ever before, specifically relating to interest rates and the cost of capital, so the old basic method on justification should not be considered since it doesn’t take into account these important variables. Rather, using either net present value (NPV) or internal rate of return (IRR) would be more suitable in today’s environment.  

The NPV method is based on the evaluation of the discounted cash flow as a result of the project. To find the NPV, the present value of each cash flow, including the negative cash flow resulting from the initial cost of the project, and discount all other cash flows at the project’s cost of capital, r. Then, you total these discounted cash flows and determine the NPV. If a project has a positive NPV, then it adds value to the company.

The IRR is defined as the discount rate that forces the NPV to equal zero. The purpose for analyzing the IRR is to determine if the discount rate that forces the NPV to equal zero is more than the “hurdle rate,” which is common for companies to be their cost of capital, r. For example, if the cost of capital is 10% and a project’s IRR is 15%, then implementing the project would be a beneficial investment to the company.

Both of these equations are extremely simple to calculate in a spreadsheet using standard commands provided that the variables are known. Every company has their own specific cost of capital as the formula to calculate, but typically it has a direct relationship with the risk-free rate of return, which most consider to be the 10-year Treasury bill, which is and will continue to be extremely low.

As an example, a project that costs $1 million and provides $275,000 in annual savings for a company with a cost of capital of 10% would have an NPV of $270,832 and an IRR of 11.65%. Both of which would seem acceptable for project justification whereas using the traditional payback method would yield 3.64 years, which might be on the fence for a lot of businesses.

In summary, just like most aspects of doing business have been altered as a result of the economic situation, so have the means for justifying capital projects in a warehouse. Since continuous improvement is the only option for distributors to stay competitive, at some point, incorporating automated material handling system is required. Understanding and utilizing new strategies in developing the justification might provide the advantage that gets the project approved and the business properly positioned for profitable growth.

John Phelan, Jr., the author of this article, is chief operating officer of TriFactor, LLC, a material handling systems integrator based in Lakeland, Fla. He can be contacted at 863-577-2243 or

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