The Robotic Picking Systems – The New Way to Order Fulfillment
Robotic Picking Systems – The New Norm
The bi-annual MODEX trade show concluded about 2 weeks ago. I was asked by a friend what I thought the newest emerging technologies that were exhibited at the show. I had to think about it for a minute and then it came to me…Picking Systems.
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MODEX 2014 Technologies
Let me set the scene, several years ago at MODEX, there were about 3 or 4 companies showing articulated arm robots picking loose pieces from totes conveyed to them like in a conventional Goods to Person system, only without the person. It seemed like a great idea and made me feel wonder why I had never thought of the concept. It seemed like a simple way to take two existing technologies and some software to solve the old problem of reducing labor in split case picking.
I talked to people in those booths showing the solutions to bettwer understand how the systems worked and where they were best applied. It seemed awfully complicated and the right application required the right type/size product, packed in a tote, not too tight, but not too loose, and so on. I think it is no coincidence I have never seen this type of system installed. It’s a great idea that doesn’t have enough flexibility to gain wide acceptance. When you look at the productivity versus using a person to perform the picking task, my guess is only a 3 shift operation might have a chance of being cost-justified.
MODEX 2016 Technologies
Then came the Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) type robotic picking systems. A driverless vehicle carries product stored on portable shelving units to stationary picking stations where a person selects the product from the shelving and places it in an order carton/tote. Until recently, Amazon Robotics seemed to be the only choice for this technology. At MODEX 2016 there were several companies that were showing different renditions of this technology. Two companies showed small robots that carry 1, 2, or even 3 orders at a time and travel automatically to a stationary (conventional) pick face where an operator picks the product and places it into the order container on the robot.
How to Best Apply your Robotic Picking Systems
Although both flavors of robotic technologies have their application/ROI challenges, but the AGV type robots seem much more flexible and require much less equipment and hardware. It emphasizes the fact that flexibility is the key for technology adoption in today’s supply chain. The vehicle picking robots do not require big changes to an existing operation or even a specialized building to gain the most benefit and efficiencies. I like the “simplicity” they represent, but there is actually nothing simple about the technology.
The implementation in an operation is much less involved compared to the fixed picking automation introduce several years ago. Another thing I like about the AGV robots is the ability to apply them differently depending on the RightFit solution of an operation. For example, if you have a lot of slow moving SKUs you could choose to group your orders with picks in adjacent aisles and send multiple vehicles/orders to that area and cluster pick them with one operator. If you have a relatively low number of SKUs that move fast, you could use each AGV to batch pick one SKU at a time and them to a consolidation area where the SKUs are sorted (manually or automatically) into discrete orders. There are more examples, but I am sure you can come up with your own scenarios.
You could also use them in industries and applications that have spurned technology in favor of process. Auto parts distribution is famous for an explosion of SKUs over the years and a wide variety of sizes and shapes of parts (think bumpers and seats to nuts and bolts/connectors). A parts distribution manager told me that ~80% of their picks come from a small parts mezzanine yet they have ~400,000 SF for the larger and slower moving SKUs. AGV robots would simply take travel out of the current processes these operations use.
Although the types of robots being developed and applied are changing, they are still coming to an industry near you. There may be several more generations of robotic technology before mass acceptance from the Supply Chain industry, but their presence is inevitable. Those who choose to embrace the new technologies and look for ways to improve efficiency have a very exciting future. I plan to be one of those people. How about you?