There is more than one factor to consider in using automated systems rather than a manual process: seasonal volume, possible cost reductions, the total size of an operation, and the product mix. We asked operations executives about the reasons they have chosen to continue using manual methods.
Whatever the size or nature of your business, the place to start in considering picking automation is optimizing the manual operation, according to Irwin Langer, director of operations at Burlington, VT-based Gardener’s Supply Company. In any case, Langer points out, to put two of your fastest-moving items at either end of a line makes no sense in a manual picking process. To automate the process and retain that same setup “is still asinine,” Langer says. “Keeping an eye on the velocity reports and slotting products appropriately is the key to achieving the desired result in any process.” Many Gardener’s Supply SKUs are large or odd-shaped items that do not lend themselves easily to small pick faces and automated handling. Gardener’s Supply has avoided automating, and so far, Langer says, it has worked well, though he does admit that he likes the concept of all standard-sized product that’s amenable to automated picking. “I’d be a hero. But the fact is that we have 23 different carton sizes.”
At the South River, NJ, distribution center for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, picking operations are automated throughout the DC — except for the area that handles requisitions from MoMA’s three retail stores. Two dedicated workers are assigned to handle store orders, which are picked from the general racks and deposited in the retail area. Store requisitions average 15 SKUs per order and can reach 1,500 pieces per order during the busy holiday season. Using the paper pick slip for each order, packers apply a price tag to each item separately and then check off items on the slip as they place them in a carton. They then write the order number (and box number within the order) on the outside of the carton, and write the appropriate box and pallet numbers on each order sheet. The stores conduct random checks for accuracy once the orders arrive.
The need to avoid automated handling in this case is the result of a tradeoff with the MoMA retail stores, says Chuck Inman, director of fulfillment operations for the South River DC. For the DC to bar code and automate this segment of its operation would mean that the retail stores would have to take on the task of applying price tickets — not something they are currently equipped to do. With the present volume, the system appears to work efficiently for the stores and the DC. “When it really gets going, we run that truck out of here, slam-jam, every day,” Inman says cheerfully.
In some cases volume is the determining factor. “We don’t believe yet that we are large enough or have the critical mass to cost justify pick-to-light or carousel technology,” says Joe Howell, vice president at Jacksonville, FL-based cataloger Venus Swimwear. “I’ve had a few conversations with operations consultants who have told me that you need to be at the $500 million sales level before you can cost justify mechanization and some of the high-tech options available,” he says. “At $80 million, I don’t believe we’re large enough yet.”
“The distance (travel times) on our workers isn’t that great. True, we are losing some efficiency by having people walk and traverse the aisles as opposed to having a carousel bring the orders to you, but we aren’t big enough yet. If you’re in a stable-volume environment, the picker is able to stay in one spot while the carousel brings the product to the picker. It’s no problem.”
But smaller also means being more nimble. “A carousel only moves so fast, and during peak seasons (which is January through May), we like not being tied to the carousel technology because we can have more pickers on the floor. With a carousel, there’s only so much room before people start running into each other.”