Document Automation In the DC

Document automation can improve your operations and fulfillment. Why? The simple answer is throughput, says Tom Napier, senior account manager for PSI Engineering – which offers document automation laser printing solutions in the automation and printer divisions.

Fully automating the document handling processes reduces congestion in the center. The accuracy of automatic checking processes ensures that the correct document is married to the correct order and/or shipping label.

What is document automation? It is a process within a company, in this case a distribution/fulfillment center, which eliminates an operator from performing the task of handling documents. Today’s DCs are much faster in their movements than ever before, PSI Engineering’s Napier explains, with an increasing number of orders, but decreasing products per order.

Napier says that document automation can increase a DC’s throughput from 20,000 to 60,000 orders per day by inserting the document and applying the shipping labels first, then sending the containers to the picking areas.

Once the product is picked, the only tasks the operator at the packing station needs to do is to add dunnage/void fill, run the taper and send to the shipping area. The last 100 feet of a DC is usually the busiest and most crowed, Napier explains. “By automating the document and labeling process, the last 100 feet of this DC is much quieter and bottleneck free.”
Document automation systems can handle 20 orders per minute for placing document pouches on the outside of a carton, Napier says, and more than 30 orders per minute feeding the paperwork inside the shipping container. The manual transaction for the pouch documents takes between 20-30 seconds while the inside container process takes anywhere from six to 12 seconds.

Retailers now demand smaller, more frequent shipments to their stores, Napier says.

The retail receiver needs to have absolutely correct documentation (packing slips and container summary lists) or the supplier’s scorecard is affected and/or a shipment may be rejected. Large retailers may also fine suppliers for incorrect documents and/or products ordered.

Document automation shouldn’t be viewed as a “magic pill” for the operations and fulfillment industry, however.

Bill Kuipers, president of operations consultancy Spaide, Kuipers & Co., says while he generally encourages the concept, “it is somewhat tricky to execute properly.” Most companies don’t properly adjust the process and workflow to capitalize on the ‘downstream’ printing, Kuipers adds.

“I have seen many operations print documents at some time during the fulfillment process that only creates delays and additional steps,” he explains. “You have to look at the whole process, not just the document association.”

A potential downside is the time associated with printing the documents downstream, even if automated, Kuipers explains. “I am very cautious about printing anything during the distribution process (as opposed to preprinting), because it can absolutely create a bottleneck.”

If you are considering document automation, be sure to anticipate the potential delays of the print cycle and make sure it’s done at a point that cannot create a bottleneck, he adds.

Kuipers has seen a few excellent examples of document automation. For instance, it can print packing slips for singles on the fly as the product is brought in bulk to the packer where they scan it and the system selects an order that gets that item and prints the appropriate packing slip. But, “this is a big stretch for the vast majority of operations and the systems they typically run,” he notes.

What’s more, Kuipers says he’s starting to see some businesses forgo printing any packing slips at all – instead they’re being sent by email with shipment confirmations. “It’s a little early for this to be widely accepted, but I believe it’s coming.”

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