Picking is the most labor-intensive function in any fulfillment center. With cost cutting and labor reduction mandated by the tough economy, fulfillment managers must look closely at technologies that eliminate manual picking (and associated replenishment processes), or at least put it on a paying basis. The current crop of picking solutions was designed with that goal in mind. Some merely guide the picking process, while others commandeer it completely. Most are of high quality and relatively easy to use. And thanks to technological improvement and increased competition between players in the technology marketplace, these methods are significantly more affordable than they used to be.
TWO FLAVORS OF PICKING
Order fulfillment picking systems come semi- or fully automated. While semi-automated solutions such as those that follow do not eliminate the role of humans, they do make human labor more efficient, easier and more productive. In a nutshell, they take the guesswork out of picking and transform what may be a challenging job into a no-brainer.
Vertical and horizontal carousels. Mechanized rack systems with storage carrier units that bring product to pickers automatically. In the case of horizontal carousels, picking is typically done in batches. A light tree alerts the picker to locations and quantity to be picked. Vertical carousels are rotating rack systems that may vary in height. Products may be large cases, or individual units. Picking is frequently pick-to-light assisted.
Radio frequency (RF) picking carts. A semiautomated picking system employing RF, put-to-light, and a computer-controlled pushcart. The picker does a batch pick run, guided by the system. Picks are RF-verified.
Pick-to-light and put-to-light. Light-assisted flow rack picking and replenishment.
Voice recognition. Phasing out pick- and put-to-light in some operations. The picker wears a headset, which relays computer instructions about where the product is and how much is to be picked. The picker confirms verbally.
Super-picking solutions, on the other hand, require only token human effort or none at all. Conspicuous examples include:
A-frames. Products placed in channels, magazines, or flow racks are automatically dispensed onto a collection belt and from there are fed directly into customer order cartons or totes. The cutting-edge development in this product category is increased speed. The latest A-frames are capable of productivity gains many times greater than what is possible via manual picking. Though most productive when processing small items of approximately uniform size (some systems can push 3/4 of a million units per day), A-frames can also work multi-sized items at extraordinary velocity. Order accuracy is excellent, industry experts say. The failure rate, according to some manufacturers, is virtually zero.
High-density robotics. The robotic star of this fully automated solution travels on a rail or “mast” to each production site. Once there, it grabs products on both sides of the aisle, then drops them directly into a tote or shipping carton.
Fully automated flow rack. While an A-frame can hustle along at a rate of 1,200-2,400 orders per hour, an automated flow rack manages only 700-1,200 orders in the same span of time. This does not mean flow racks are an inferior technology; they’re simply designed to process slower-moving items — i.e., a Beethoven’s greatest hits CD, as opposed to a new song anthology by some MTV pop diva.
Total automation works best in gargantuan operations that process millions of items of roughly the same shape and size — packs of cigarettes, books, CDs, videos, etc. The extremely high cost of totally automated picking technologies places them out of reach of the average online retailer, and all but the most muscular 3PLs.
“Right now we use directed-picking technologies such as pick-to-light,” says David Madden, vice president of operations for Standard Corp., a full-service 3PL provider headquartered in Columbia, SC. “When a 3PL installs something more sophisticated than that, it’s usually at the request of a customer. In such cases you’re usually talking about a speed need; for example, a big retailer who has to drop-ship to consumers in a hurry. So far we haven’t partnered with anyone who had that requirement.” Standard currently employs 3,000 associates in 51 warehouse operations across the country. Clients include DuPont, Bosch, International Paper, Dow Chemical, and Georgia Pacific. Big as it is, the company still relies exclusively on “directed picking technologies” to get product out the door. In this respect at least, it is a typical 3PL.
MUSIC WITHOUT STAFF
Full automation is the goal of B.E. Music Inc., a membership-based music subscription service whose closest competitor is Columbia House. The Duncan, SC distribution center ships 75,000-80,000 orders per day, consisting exclusively of CDs. According to operations manager David Bartlett, 90% of all orders are processed automatically. There are four SI Systems A-frames and one gantry robot on site, and both process orders at the rate of one per second. Employees manually pick off-sized items, such as CD sets and DVDs. The center began to automate in 1985, and has been fully automated since the mid-1990s, Bartlett says. It took only five years to cut staff from 600 to 250.
A major manufacturer of contact lenses also employs total picking automation in its 150,000-sq.-ft. DC, equipped with three A-frames and one XY-formatted gantry robot. The facility has three SI Systems Dispen-Si-Matic A-frames, two of them pick-to-tote and the other one pick-to-belt, which process a total of 8,000-12,000 orders per day. Large orders are worked by the belt system and smaller ones by the pick-to-tote A-frames. Product is picked into a carton, which is forwarded to a pack station area. There the order is verified and sent on to a department area. Automation Tooling Systems of Canada manufactured the gantry robot, used to pick the company’s toric diagnostic product (used for a special visual disability). For slow movers, a pick-to-light system is used.
PICKY, PICKY, PICKY
Typically skewed to the direct-to-consumer marketplace, smaller fulfillment centers often process highly customized orders that sometimes call for additional value-added services. Semiautomated picking technologies such as light-assisted, flow rack picking and replenishment are a godsend to such operations, as they help eliminate redundancy and wasted time.
Manufacturers and 3PLs that ship to mass merchandisers face many of the same challenges as small online retailers, but on a grander scale. The largest retail chains are getting out of the distribution business. Rather than accept shipments at a central warehouse, many have their suppliers feed product to each of their outlets individually. The retailer might contract one or more 3PLs to do this, or make it mandatory that its suppliers take on the additional job of distribution. The long-term effect of this practice has been a rupturing of long-established supply chain protocols. Retailing, as we once knew it, is no more.
All of this has gone hand in hand with the development of e-commerce in general, an evolutionary process that has moved steadily forward despite the dot-com die-off. Having discovered the powerful advantages offered by the Web, many traditional retailers have trained their customers to buy online. Several links have disappeared from the supply chain as a result. Bypassing old channels of distribution, the chain now links retailers directly to consumers.
This direct connection with consumers inevitably raises the issue of quantity versus quality. Though many more orders ship each day, their individual value is significantly reduced. For bean counters, this amounts to a worst-case scenario. It’s a lot more expensive to hunt down, pack, and ship a bunch of little orders than it is to forward a large quantity of merchandise to a store or wholesale distribution center. The scenario becomes even more complicated when some value-added service, such as a limited assembly operation or a coupon insert, is introduced to the mix. It creates a management problem as well: More orders require more people to process them, but can you afford that when you’re making less money on each order?
“Picking technologies have evolved with the times,” says Darin Danelski, president of Innovative Picking Technologies Inc. in Milwaukee, a provider of automated warehouse picking solutions. “With pick- and put-to-light you install a light at every location in the warehouse. The lights tell you where and what to pick. The shift to onesey-twosey SKU processing has mandated an increasing reliance on technology in warehouse operation. It used to be that companies couldn’t afford such solutions, but with competition between providers on the increase, they’ve become more viable. ROI was 2.5 years a decade ago; now it’s about a year.”
When semiautomated picking technologies were making their way to warehouses in the 1990s, Danelsky says, the idea behind them was labor augmentation, not displacement. The economy was robust in those days, with more jobs than there were people to fill them. The role of automated picking has polarized in the current economic reality. Now it’s about replacing people, or not having to make new hires when things do get better. Accuracy has also become a much more critical issue, especially since mass merchandisers began to impose hefty penalties when improperly processed orders somehow escaped the system. Today’s advanced picking technologies aren’t perfect, but the checks and balances they provide vastly improve accuracy. That can’t be a bad thing, even when there’s no penalty attached for non-compliance.
“Right now speed and accuracy are the two biggest themes in automated picking,” says Chris James, sales manager for Knapp Logistics & Automation Inc., an Atlanta-based picking solutions provider. “Automated check stations, which verify customer orders, promote both accuracy and speed. You can check up to 3,000 items per hour versus the 1,000 you get manually. Greater speed, more accuracy and space reduction are what fulfillment is all about today, and new and improved picking technologies are helping operations achieve all three.”
D. Douglas Graham (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, MO.