The Supply Chain Professional’s Guide to Warehouse Automation
If you work in the order fulfillment or materials handling industries, you know that there is no escaping the inevitable march towards automation. Over the past few decades, there has been an explosion of new warehouse automation technologies, systems, and strategies, all promising to make your operation more competitive, less wasteful, and, ultimately, more profitable.
Supply Chain Management Review has gone so far as to say that, “Warehouse automation is one of the last areas where long term costs can be significantly reduced.”
And with good reason—as a firm evolves and grows, operational changes can offer a great opportunity to increase profitability and efficiency, and customers’ desire for quicker delivery can really set your company apart from the competition. But even if those types of promises are bold and warrant further investigation, with all hype and excitement about automation, you may be wondering if it is truly the right path for you and your operation.
We’ve pulled together this guide to help you better understand how automation can impact your operation and facilities. In this guide, we’ll address:
The four primary benefits of warehouse automation are: Reduced labor costs, increased operational efficiency, increased workplace safety, and the ability to address labor availability concerns.
The secret behind these results? Identifying repetitive tasks or unnecessary movements of resources or inventory that can be eliminated or conducted more efficiently, at a lower cost, with less labor, more accurately, and in less time.
Warehouses and distribution centers typically require a number of similar tasks be performed hundreds and thousands of times per day. By replacing these tasks with the right mixture of automation and software you can reduce the amount of labor hours required in your operation.
This is effective in today’s competitive labor market where labor availability is becoming a larger issue every year as the pool of labor to perform warehouse related work shrinks while the demands placed on the operation to do more in less time continually increases.
By switching to an automated sortation system, you would no longer need your sortation to be such a personnel-heavy part of your operation. Depending on the size of your operation, an automated sortation system could easily reduce the need for additional warehouse workers, which either allows you to reduce your spending on labor or reallocate employees so that they are handling tasks that add more value to your operations. Discreetly picking case orders can be extremely inefficient if done with conventional fork lift equipment from storage racks. By batch picking to conveyor multiple cases of skus that are then sorted out to the order via a sortation system, the rate achievable per hour by each picker can increase easily by a magnitude of four or five. Similarly, in an item-level order selection system where the items are stored in a sea of shelving, picking can make up over half of the warehouse labor. By allowing batch totes to be created, the number of units picked per hour in a zone can increase significantly when no care needs to be exercised to picking to the constraint of which SKUs are needed for a order. Instead, work can be grouped so that the operator can pick the items in their zone that are required for many orders. Multiple containers can then be brought to an unit sorter where all of the work is sorted out for each packer down to the order level as items in each container are consolidated with their brethren from other containers.
By switching to an automated sortation system, you would no longer need your sortation to be such a personnel-heavy part of your operation. Depending on the size of your operation, an automated sortation system could easily reduce the need for additional warehouse workers, which either allows you to reduce your spending on labor or reallocate employees so that they are handling tasks that add more value to your operations.
Discreetly picking case orders can be extremely inefficient if done with conventional fork lift equipment from storage racks. By batch picking to conveyor multiple cases of skus that are then sorted out to the order via a sortation system, the rate achievable per hour by each picker can increase easily by a magnitude of four or five.
Similarly, in an item-level order selection system where the items are stored in a sea of shelving, picking can make up over half of the warehouse labor. By allowing batch totes to be created, the number of units picked per hour in a zone can increase significantly when no care needs to be exercised to picking to the constraint of which SKUs are needed for a order. Instead, work can be grouped so that the operator can pick the items in their zone that are required for many orders. Multiple containers can then be brought to an unit sorter where all of the work is sorted out for each packer down to the order level as items in each container are consolidated with their brethren from other containers.
In exchange for the initial investment that it takes to fully or partially automate your warehouse, order fulfillment operations realize additional savings by eliminating the ongoing costs, aside from salary, that accompany personnel: Healthcare expenses, retirement benefits, vacation and sick time, overtime pay, etc.
Employees expect their compensation to grow with their experience level and time with a company. Whether this is through yearly salary increases, bonuses, additional vacation time, or a 401k match, with each year that passes, your workers will inevitably want more compensation for their services. This means that every year, even without increased profits, your labor costs increase, further eating into your margin and reducing your profit.
Additionally, if your business or operation is going through a period of growth and you rely entirely on warehouse workers, then you will need to hire more staff in order to meet customer demand. This addition of new personnel brings with it an increase in labor costs that erodes the potential profit that an uptick in workload offers.
By replacing personnel with an automated system, you can mitigate this perpetual growth in labor expenses. In fact, while warehouse personnel get more expensive as the years go on, automated technologies become more profitable as time goes on: Once a machine has operated long enough to recoup the initial investment, any additional savings associated with its use is pure profit (excluding the cost of maintenance, repair, and energy consumption).
Beyond simply controlling labor costs, automating your warehouse has the potential to impact your bottom line in another way: By increasing the efficiency of your operations in ways that warehouse employees are simply unable to do.
Simply put: Humans make mistakes. When workers are responsible for the many complex tasks at various steps of the order fulfillment process, mistakes are bound to happen along the way. Product gets damaged, orders get mixed up, customers receive incomplete or incorrect product. All of this costs your operation time and money, as well as potentially lost business caused by angry or frustrated customers who seek an alternative provider.
By replacing the human element with an automated system, you remove some of this potential for inaccurate workflows, ultimately reducing waste and increasing output, allowing your operations to become more productive and accurate. This increased accuracy and efficiency has the potential to help you boost important key performance indicators for your operation, which can have big ramifications down the line.
For example, lowering your total order cycle time by increasing your efficiency will allow you to get orders to customers more quickly, keeping them happy and ensuring that you will retain their business. Similarly, boosting your perfect order percentage by as little as 3 percent (thanks to the increased accuracies inherent in automated sortation systems) can increase your profit margin by 1 percent: A solid, respectable gain.
Additionally, by allowing these repeatable tasks to be handled by technology instead of warehouse personnel, you can shift your personnel to other tasks that add more value to your operation—tasks that cannot be completed by a machine. This benefits both you as an employer but also your employees, who have the potential to learn valuable new skills that make them more competitive.
Increased Workplace Safety
Like we said above, people make mistakes. But this propensity doesn’t just increase the odds of damaging product or getting an order wrong—it can often mean the difference between a safe and an unsafe work environment.
Workers get tired, fatigued, and distracted. They sometimes don’t see an obstacle until they ram a forklift into it. Accidents can cost companies money by damaging product that can no longer be sold and by damaging equipment or structures that then need to be replaced but worst case accidents can lead to OSHA reportable injuries or even death. These events can also increase operational costs indirectly in the form of insurance rate, OSHA penalties (which can top $12,000 in some cases), and time lost due to injury or structural repair.
Automated systems increase workplace safety by removing the human element and by keeping workers out of situations that can lead to accidents to begin with. All of this allows automated systems to save money by reducing damage that operators can cause.
Although they haven’t been widely implemented in the world of fulfillment and distribution center automation (outside of a few e-commerce heavy-hitters, of course), Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) are a good example of a technology that can perform many tasks that are dangerous to warehouse personnel, such as handling hazardous substances, working in extreme temperatures, and moving heavy materials. AGVs operate in a controlled manner, with smooth and consistent acceleration/deceleration and monitored top speeds—a direct contrast to manual forklift drivers, who can whip around a plant at high speeds and endanger staff. This ultimately moves personnel out of harm’s way.
Ability to Address Labor Availability Concerns
When it comes to issues surrounding “labor,” the most common culprit tends to be rising or unsustainable labor costs, which drive a conversion to automation. But automation can help you address another significant labor concern: Namely, a lack of skilled workers.
If you cannot find the workers necessary to complete the tasks required for your operation to prosper, then growing your business to meet customer demand presents additional challenges. A lack of qualified workers also brings with it the added effect of increasing hourly rates and salary requirements for the workers that you do have: When job openings are plentiful, workers find it easier to move around to better paying jobs.
Issues of labor shortage are often caused by geography and demographic trends—factors outside of your control. Aside from relocating your operation somewhere where there is a more plentiful pool of workers to pull from, you have few options to keep your operation competitive and growing. Automation is one of those options.
Automated systems can perform repetitive tasks (picking, sorting, packing, etc.) more easily and more efficiently than warehouse employees. This ability to automate repetitive tasks is crucial when you have a labor shortage: It allows you to put workers in charge of more valuable tasks while allowing machines to do the “grunt” work.
Additionally, in competitive markets, automation can create a desirable work environment where applicants are drawn to your facility versus that of another employer they may be considering. Much like warehouses which are climate controlled in warmer geographies, applicants will take note and automation can be a recruiting tool when associates realize their work experience will be more pleasant and less demanding physically.
Automation has the potential to touch virtually any task within your facility that is repetitive, prone to error, or time-consuming, from the moment that product arrives to your warehouse as inventory to the moment that it leaves as a part of an order or shipment.
Warehouse and Inventory Management
Warehouse Execution System (WES)
When you run an operation that is responsible for processing thousands of orders each day, you can’t expect to be able to manage the entire operation manually. Between managing inventory, controlling automated processes, and keeping orders flowing, having an appropriate warehouse execution system (WES) in place is essential to keeping things operating smoothly.
A WES is so critical because it forms the nervous system of your operation, orchestrating the movement and placement of inventory and smoothly directing resources through the balanced release of work throughout all the functional areas of an operation. Depending on the specific needs of your operation, the WES you use may be able to:
- Dynamically track and manage inventory as it moves throughout the warehouse and the various processes involved in order fulfillment (storage, replenishment, picking, etc.)
- Process order data to organize the fulfillment process as efficiently as possible through wave and batch picking
- Manage cartonization so that dimensional weight charges are minimized
- Manage automated systems such as AS/RS, tote and pallet shuttles, automated packaging, pallet cart systems, carousels, pick zone routing, and sortation +-
- Provide end-to-end management of the shipping process, including parcel and container manifesting, order consolidation, palletization, and wave management
Whether you are breaking down a delivery after it has arrived in your warehouse or simply moving product from location to location within your facility, automation has the potential to dramatically increase your operation’s productivity.
When it comes to conveying product from location to location within your operation, conveyors still prove to be one of the most effective automated solutions. But it is important to ensure that the conveyor you use is properly suited to both the space you have available to house it and the type(s) of product that it must handle. Below we discuss some of the most common and popular conveyor systems and the applications that they are best suited for.
The accumulation conveyor is an integral part of most modern distribution systems. It works by allowing for the buffering of work between various processes by taking into account differences between when a product is ready to be used/packed and when it is needed.
This is especially useful in order fulfillment operations because it allows pickers to continue to pick orders to the conveyor system even when the dock workers may be backed up due to trailer change outs or other events that impact loading.
Accumulation conveyors are ideal for buffering product between order selection and assembly, merging multiple conveyors into a single stream, loading conveyors for route delivery, building orders from multiple areas, and smoothing irregularities between processes in an operation.
That being said, conveying product that is fragile or light in weight makes it critical to ensure that accumulation conveyors are applied properly. To address this, the right speeds, release modes, and alignment must be used throughout the entire system. Various types of accumulation conveyors (including minimal pressure accumulation, zero pressure accumulation, and true non-contact accumulation) and release modes (singulation, slug, and auto-slug) address these needs.
Case conveyors are a critical component of any operation that handles cases or cartons. It allows for the movement of cases from location to location within a facility.
In addition to aiding in receiving, case conveyors play a large role in case sortation, which we discuss below and which can impact picking, packing, and shipping.
Overhead Trolley Conveyor
Powered overhead trolley conveyor systems have a wide array of uses in warehouses and distribution centers. They are typically simple systems with few components consisting of a chain that rides in an enclosed track which uses secondary fixtures, hangers, trolleys, or wire baskets to move materials around an operation.
These systems are installed in a closed loop configuration and can be powered by one drive depending upon the total chain pull and loading on the system. Multiple drives can support longer loops and the drives are synchronized to work in tandem.
There are multiple styles of powered and non-powered overhead trolley conveyor systems that are tailored towards certain industries and applications. Some examples of this include:
- Delivery of empty corrugated cartons or totes for picking and packing
- Takeaway of trash from picking areas and transport to balers or compactors
- Handling of garments on hanger (GOH)
- Sortation of garment on hanger trolleys
- Sortation of individual garments on hanger
- Hanging of goods through paint line applications
- Handling of heavy parts through manufacturing operations
24v – Motorized Driven Roller (MDR Powered Roller Conveyor)
The 24V – Motorized Driven Roller is a conveyor where the conveying surface is powered by independently-driven powered rollers rather than motors and gearboxes (as would be the case with a traditional conveyor systems). The powered roller is driven by a 24V motor which is enclosed in a roller tube. There is typically one motor in each “zone,” which drives additional carrying rollers.
Utilizing a 24V – Motorized Driven Roller allows for a number of benefits, including:
- Energy savings, since the roller runs on demand
- Decreased noise pollution, because there are no chains or sprockets
- Creative applications for operations with small footprints
- Increased safety
There are a multitude of flexible options and configurations with this type of micro conveyor to help in many different places in the material handling system, including merging, sortation, product separation and gapping, and zone routing transfers within pick modules. The rollers can even be belted to allow for inclines, declines, and the handling of bags or envelopes.
Trash Conveyor (Empty Corrugated Conveyor – ECC)
One of the most commonly overlooked components of a properly designed order fulfillment system is the removal of trash created during the receiving and picking process. Depending upon the volume of eaches or inner packs consumed within a shift, the creation of corrugate can create a safety hazard as well as impede the productivity of those working in these areas.
Trash conveyors were created to facilitate the removal of large amounts of corrugate produced in a warehouse. These wide trash conveyors allow for the conveying of refuse out of work areas and onto areas where they can be efficiently disposed. Typically, these conveyors feed chutes at bailers or compactors, where loads of corrugate are created for removal from the facility.
It is possible to merge lines from multiple levels within an order selection module or the discharge from multiple order selection modules into one stream that can feed balers or compactors. At each of these transfer points, it is a best practice to step up the width of the conveyor that is being merged into one width to reduce jams.
Pallet Handling Systems
Pallet handling systems have the potential to increase the efficiency of a warehouse by automating functions that usually require dedicated forklift operators. Just as with case conveyors, the success of a pallet handling system is dependent upon selecting the right system for the needs of your operation.
Common pallet handling systems include Chain Driven Live Roller (CDLR), Drag Chain, and Transfer Car systems.
Chain Driven Live Roller (CDLR)
Designed to handle pallets, slave boards, or drums, CDLR is designed with heavy duty structural side frames to enable it to handle an operation’s required capacity.
The output of the motor’s drive shaft delivers power to rollers at the conveyor surface. Power is then transferred to subsequent rollers via series of chains connecting power from the driven rollers to those rollers that are powered from them. To accumulate, individual single-zone powered sections can be used or longer sections with clutches that engage and disengage drive can be utilized.
Drag Chain pallet handling systems are a popular solution for when the orientation of a pallet is important.
Multiple strands of chain are used to move pallets along the conveyor surfaces. A single shaft is used to deliver power from the motor to the multiple strands along the surface. These strands travel within guide tracks to keep the chains captured and vertical through their travel as they convey the pallet through direct physical contact.
Transfer cars are used to travel a linear path and often stop and service multiple stations.
Typically used in palletizing operations, transfer cars can have multiple load positions on the vehicle, each with its own independently-driven powered sections of the conveyor. One can be used to deposit a new pallet while retrieving a completed load from a palletizing cell. Single position cars can be used in lower rate application when required.
Palletizing systems allow products to be arranged for storage or transport economically and safely on a pallet instead of by piece or by case. Selecting the right palletizing system depends on both operational requirements and business considerations, including:
- Up front cost and desired return on investment
- Product geometry
- Production line rates or orders to be built each day
- Simultaneous production lines in operation
- Pallet patterns
- Speed, efficiency, and accuracy
- Ergonomics and safety
There are a two distinct types of Palletizing systems: Robotic and Conventional.
Robotic palletizing systems use robotic arms to process either entire layers or individual cases. Robotic palletizing systems are arranged in cells where there is a direct correlation between the number of infeed or source lines from production or picking and the number of outbound lanes. In many scenarios, sortation systems direct cases to individual palletizing cells where the formation of a unitized load is assigned for a given SKU or order.
Layer Picking Robots can be used to perform either palletizing or depalletizing of finished goods. These systems operate in a rectangular area and have a robotic head that travels while attached to a beam that rides on a set of rails along the processing area. The head can move side to side in order to position itself over the load to the be processed. It essentially is a storage and retrieval device which can buffer and store large quantities of product.
Conventional palletizing systems utilize a formation table to configure product cartons into rows as they flow into the palletizing area, ultimately arranging subsequent rows into a complete pallet layer formation, which is then transitioned onto the pallet. After each layer is placed onto the pallet, another layer of cartons is arranged, and, depending on the type of system, either the formation table is raised or the pallet is lowered. The new layer is then transitioned onto the pallet.
Depalletizing functions similarly—conventional or robotic depalletizing systems remove cases or layers of cases. These devices are often used in order fulfillment operations where an entire pallet of a given SKU is not required and cases and layers can removed and sent to an order build area. As each layer is removed the cases are aligned and arranged in single file using a section of conveyor called a singulator. These cases can then be labeled with an identifying barcode so they can be disseminated to the correct area downstream.
Sortation is the process of identifying items on a conveyor system and diverting them to specific destinations using a variety of devices controlled by task-specific software. Different sorters are better suited for different applications depending upon the product type and the required rate of processing for an operation.
Sorters have the potential to touch nearly every part of the order fulfillment process:
- Return Processing: Items can be sorted out for return to stock or putaway.
- Putaway: Allows trailer loads of mixed SKUs to be received and easily broken down so that items can be palletized with one touch prior to being put in reserve storage.
- Picking: In split case picking there may be many different areas to be picked from, so a sorter is used to route cartons/totes into the proper zones.
- Packing: The right sortation system can be used to consolidate multiple orders within the same pack station so that they can be shipped in the same carton. A sorter can also be used to route split case orders to specific types of packing tasks based on the type of shipping container required (polybags, cartons, gift wrapping, etc.).
- Shipping: Orders can be sorted by LTL, small package, or other carrier or service methods. Additionally, a sorter can be used to consolidate full case picks and split case picks to the same lane, so they can be palletized together for shipment or loaded directly onto a trailer to maximize the cube being shipped.
Sorters can be broken out into two broad buckets: Case Sorters and Unit Sorters.
Case sorters work by sorting and transferring whole cases of product from one location to another. This could be a case containing a single product which is being put away, or it could be a tote or shipping container that is essentially a complete order.
Narrow Belt Sorter (NBS)
The Narrow Belt Sorter uses a set of narrow strip belts to carry product over the surface of the sorter. It contains an individual takeup for each belt in the system.
Narrow belt sorters come in two varieties: One with a 90-degree divert (NBS-90) and one with a 30-degree divert (NBS-30). On the NBS-90, a series of high friction rollers raise to engage the product and divert it off of the sorter at a right angle; on the NBS-30, fixed-angle wheels rise up between the carrying strip belts and divert product off the sorter. The NBS-90 is especially suited to allow for sortation of product directly onto their shipping gaylord without any manual intervention.
Narrow belt sorters are typically used in operations with mid-rate sortation, as the they can handle faster rates than standard pop up sorters. They can commonly be found in packing areas, where totes and cartons of wide ranges need to be sorted.
The narrow belt sorter uses a set of narrow strip belts to carry product over the surface of the sorter. Where the NBS Wave differs is in the cascading (wave) motion of the individual rows of wheels, which cascade such that the first row drops and is followed by each row in the direction of flow, one after the next.
The result is a reduced amount of gap, which results in a higher overall throughput in terms of product feet vs. gap or air required on machines that have a higher gap requirement between cartons on the machine.
A pusher sorter, as the name implies, uses a device to “push” product off of the sortation line. These pushers are usually constructed using an air-actuated cylinder with a block mounted across its face. The cylinder extends outwards until the desired length is detected (usually via a reed switch at a fixed point) and makes contact with the item traveling across its face, thus diverting it off of the main line.
Several pushers can be mounted along a belt conveyor to increase the number of sortation points. An extremely economical sortation method when a minimal number of sort points are required, these types of sortation devices were some of the very first sorters put into service in the 1950’s.
Paddle Sorter (BAT) or Flat Face Divert Sorters
A paddle sorter, or BAT sorter, uses a paddle to shunt product off of the sortation line in a similar fashion to a bat being swung by a hitter (though with much less force). The paddles are constructed with an air-actuated cylinder with a flat face. The cylinder extends in such a fashion that the furthest downstream side of the face extends out at an angle, allowing the sorted item to be guided along the angle established along the paddle’s face.
Pop Up Wheel Sorter
A pop up wheel sorter consists of a series of buckets installed along a belt conveyor, where the belt is serpentined through the divert bucket. This allows one drive to be used. Product continues to convey over the buckets via carrying bands. As product is tracked and it reaches the precise divert location, fixed-position divert wheels “pop up” and divert the product off of the pop-up wheel sorter.
The divert bucket itself consists of multiple rows of wheels that will pop up in a fixed orientation. These buckets can be replaced in a matter of minutes in the event service is required. The modular design allows for one to be removed and a new one swapped in quickly.
Sliding Shoe Sorter
A sliding shoe sorter is a highly accurate option for sorting products of many different shapes, sizes, and weights. Sliding shoe sorters have the ability to sort products at a high rate without causing any damage to the product, though the rate at which it can sort will depend on the size and weight of the product itself. The range for the rate may be from 20 products per minute to hundreds of products per minute, depending on the application.
In order for a shoe sorter to operate, slats make up the conveyable surface and are used to carry product through the system. Shoes are attached to one side of the slats, while diverts are on the opposite side. As products are carried along the conveyor path toward their specified divert, multiple shoes will gently divert the product in a diagonal direction from the slat conveyor onto the divert lane. The diagonal motion of multiple shoes is used to avoid damaging the product.
A Bombay sorter, also known as a flat sorter, is used for high-speed automated sortation of small, lightweight items. These items would be too small and light to be handled by a typical conveyor system and can include bagged garments, jewelry, pharmaceuticals, CDs, mail, books and other small parcels.
Bombay sorters are typically found in distribution centers that do a lot of direct-to-consumer operations. The Bombay sorter handles similar items and operates in the same way that a tilt tray or crossbelt sorter would. Bombay sorters typically have hundreds of sort locations, making these sorters rather long. However, they make good use of space with sort location as close to each other as 18 inches from center to center.
These sorters can be engineered to have curves and designed to fit tight warehouse spaces. The item being sorted can either be placed on the sorter manually by an operator or through an automated induction system. Once the items are on the sorter they are then scanned and assigned a location to be sorted to.
Unlike the tilt tray sorter and the crossbelt sorter, the Bombay sorter items fall through a trapdoor to arrive at its sorted location (hence the name). The items can be sorted into a chute for further processing or dropped directly into a carton or tote ready to ship to its customer.
Crossbelt Sorter (Loop Sorter)
The crossbelt or loop sorter is comprised of a chain of many transversely oriented short belt conveyors riding on a track that is on a continuous loop. Every single belt carries one item to be sorted. When the item is ready to be discharged, the crossbelt will be activated and the item will divert to either side of the system. This configuration makes the crossbelt sorter a highly efficient mechanism, requiring minimal space for high-volume item sortation.
Like Bombay sorters, crossbelt sorters can be fed by automated induction stations, or by manual operators. Scanners match an item barcode to a belt section and track the item to the correct destination. These sorters often feed customizable chutes that allow a single divert location to create multiple orders. Crossbelt Sorters are superior to use after a wave pick or batch pick operation.
This particular sortation can be designed in two different configurations: Horizontal sortation, which is circular, and vertical sortation, which is in a linear format. These conveyors are an appropriate solution for operations that require a higher volume of throughput, a wide range of product shapes and sizes, or have narrow footprints and many different processing stations. Crossbelt sorters have been used in many industries including grocery, apparel, and ecommerce.
Tilt Tray Sorter
A tilt tray sorter is a specific type of continuous loop sorter which is a highly accurate, high speed method of sortation. A continuous loop sorter is comprised of a rail or track configured in an endless loop on which individual carriages ride at speeds of up to 590 feet per minute. The carriages are connected together to form a chain, which is used to drive them along the track.
Specific to the tilt tray sorter, each carriage is topped by a tray, commonly made of wood or plastic, which can be individually actuated to tilt to either one or both sides. The item on the tray is then deposited by gravity onto either a chute or a takeaway conveyor.
Items to be sorted can be manually deposited onto the trays by personnel or automatically inducted into the trays by an induction conveyor. Regardless of which method is used, the item placed onto the tray is tracked by controls software and is transferred to its correct location. This arrangement allows for sortation of up to 40,000 items per hour.
Tilt tray sorters are very versatile in that they can be used with virtually any type of packaging. Whether the item to be transferred is packaged in a carton, bag, or tote, as long as the item fits on the tray, it can be sorted efficiently. This can include very small or oddly shaped items.
In comparison with other sortation technologies, a tilt tray sorter can be easily reconfigured or expanded with minimal difficulty. This technology has been widely and successfully used in many different industries, including apparel, postal, publishing, and pharmaceutical.
Whereas case sorters handle entire cases of product, unit sorters handle individual items throughout the different stages of order fulfillment, including order selection, packing, and outbound shipping sortation. Many unit sorters are loop sorters, because of their orientation are commonly a closed circular loop.
Three case sorters that can also act as unit sorters are Bombay sorters, crossbelt (loop) sorters, and tilt tray sorters. The pouch/pocket sorter is another option perfect for unit sortation.
A pouch or pocket sorter is a type of unit sorter that adds storage and retrieval functionality. These sorters work by handling a batch of units that has been picked and then placed one at a time into bags hanging from an overhead trolley (one unit per bag). The bags are then stored in an automated buffer until enough units have been put into the system to complete the order (or a wave of orders).
The system automatically retrieves and sorts the wave of units into discrete orders and sequences them (in any order) to packing stations.
Picking is often the backbone of any order fulfillment operation. As such, automation has a lot of potential to offer in making the process more efficient, allowing workers to pick more orders in less time.
Picking can be broadly split into two categories: Split case order picking and full case order picking.
Split Case Order Picking
Split case order picking can go by several different names, such as “each picking,” “piece picking,” or “break case picking.” But whatever you call it, split case order picking always involves the selection of individual units for packing into a carton or a tote. Though this can be done manually, there are many different technologies that can be used to drive efficiency and accuracy.
Pick to Light
Pick to Light (PTL) systems are comprised of lighted displays attached to the pick face of each SKU in the picking area. Although it isn’t always necessary, the picking area is usually divided into zones with a different picker assigned to each zone.
Pickers scan the order ID to induct new work into the system. After work is inducted, the PTL system directs the picker to an item location. Upon reaching the item location, the picker will see the quantity to be selected, which is shown on a digital display. The picker follows the digital displays and places the correct items in the correct quantity into the correct container.
Accuracy is maintained by requiring the picker to depress a button on the Pick to Light display which confirms the pick for each container. The system records what is picked into each container and by which operator. This information is used in accountability reporting by operator to ensure they are maintaining proper productivity and accuracy standards.
PTL systems are used to select discrete orders into about 1–4 containers at a time. The best use of a PTL system is to pick random SKUs within an order where they are stored with one SKU per location on a rack, shelving, and/or carton flow rack location.
Containers can represent one discrete order or can be a batch tote containing order lines for many orders. When a batch tote is constructed its contents will then need to be sorted to the order level in a secondary process downstream of picking. This is often done using Put to Light which is described in the following section. PTL is most effective with a small to medium number of SKUs which is about 500-5000 SKUs but has even been deployed in systems with more than 25,000 locations.
Put to Light
Put to Light systems are used when most of the orders receive at least one unit of each SKU being processed. It can provide much higher productivity than a picking system if set up properly for the right order profile, and is typically used for pre-allocated inventory that gets pushed to the customer. This usually occurs in an omni-channel retail environment.
In a put to light system, order containers are placed on tilted shelving, which can be 1–3 levels high, with one order in each location. SKU cartons are opened and passed one at a time by all the orders on the shelving. The SKU ID label is scanned, and the displays under the order indicate the number of units of each scanned SKU that is required for the order. The “Put” operator pushes the confirm button on the order display to confirm he placed the right number of units of that SKU in the right order.
Put cells can also be created to break down batch totes created in earlier pick zones. This allows multiple totes to be created at the same time in separate zones, each containing order lines for many orders. Parallel picking allows the order cycle time to be decreased so that orders are not processed linearly and constrained by the most inefficient zones. After picking these batch totes, they are then routed to put cells where the contents of totes can be broken down and consolidated into their outbound shipping containers.
Pick to Voice/Put to Voice
Voice technology can be used in a similar way to pick to light technology. In a pick to voice or put to voice system, the picker wears a headset through which the system voices instructions to the picker. The picker voices each action back to the system to confirm the instructions. The picker interfaces with the system without ever looking at a screen or piece of paper. With his eyes up, he is able to quickly move between tasks.
Voice technology can be used in almost any type of picking operation. It can be used on its own or in conjunction with technologies like pick to light in order to capture unique information such as lot codes or serial numbers for the SKU or the order.
Radio Frequency (RF) Systems
Radio frequency (RF) technology is one of the most flexible and accurate modes for order fulfillment. Radio frequency systems provide a real-time interface with the picker, integrating with a hand or ring scanner so that locations or SKUs can be verified. It can capture other information like lot code, date code, and expiration date on every pick for 100% checked orders.
Goods-to-Person (G2P) solutions are a set of Automated Storage and Retrieval (AS/RS) technologies that go by many names including: Goods-to-person, goods-to-operator, goods-to-picker, and goods-to-partner.
While there are case level applications for these technologies, there are often goods-to-person technology is best used for split case order fulfillment. Though there are different types of goods-to-person technology, the principle is the same: An automated storage system delivers SKUs to a stationary pick station, where the operator fills discrete orders.
G2P is best suited to wide range of volumes and operations of different sizes. Product type (small- to medium-cube is better) and typical order profile (lines/order or units/line) are significant factors in deciding which type of g2p technology makes sense for an operation.
Most goods-to-person technologies require much less space than conventional storage and order fulfillment systems because they store product more efficiently and with no personnel aisles.
A major consideration is potential payback and reduced labor requirements. In operations where these technologies can make sense, labor can often be reduced by more than two thirds when compared to conventional alternatives.
Pouch or pocket sorters are a type of unit sorter that adds storage and retrieval functionality. A batch of units is picked and then placed one at a time into bags hanging from an overhead trolley. The bags are then stored in an automated buffer until enough units have been put into the system to complete an order or a wave of orders. The system automatically retrieves and sorts the wave of units into discrete orders and sequences them to packing stations.
Horizontal carousel systems are the original goods-to-person system that has been used widely for decades. In a horizontal carousel system, a series of bins are supported and move along a track via a series of yokes. These bins contain multiple shelves used to store goods. Carousels are arranged into groups of two or more units and are referred to as “pods.”
A conveyor is used to create a batch of work. The goal is to have a single pick made from the carousel when it spins into position supply multiple “puts” into the orders staged along the batch of work. This process is usually driven via a light bar which displays the location to pick from, the quantity to retrieve, and which order or orders to dispense the retrieved items into.
Totes or cartons can be stored and retrieved from horizontal carousels. A device called an inserter extractor is mounted along the horizontal carousel. The carousel will spin into position until the bin containing the shelf where the product is to be put away or retrieved from is in position at the inserter extractor. Product will be staged at a Pickup and Deposit (P&D) location. The inserter-extractor will traverse vertically to the P&D location to retrieve or return product. In the event a put away is happening product will be retrieved from the P&D location, loaded onto the inserter-extractor carriage, and will be brought vertically to the shelf level to where it will be conveyed off of the carriage and into the storage location.
Full Case Order Picking
Whereas split case order picking involves picking individual units for packing into a carton or tote, full case order picking involves picking full cases (as the name implies). Though full case picking has historically been treated as a manual operation, it is very possible to automate or semi-automate the process in order to increase order accuracy and efficiency.
Full case order picking solutions are typically designed on a case-by-case basis to address the needs of a specific operation. A properly-designed system may include unit load and mini-load AS/RS, pallet shuttles (pallet runners), pick modules, hybrid case picking systems, sortation, and automated labeling systems. The goal is to:
- Maximize picking and replenish labor efficiencies
- Simplify the consolidation of conveyable and non-conveyable
- Build orders in unique sequences to maximize trailer cube utilization and minimize delivery labor
- Store and deliver completed orders to free up dock space and turn trailers faster
Automated Storage and Retrieval (AS/RS)
Automated storage and retrieval (AS/RS) is a system wherein product is retrieved from storage for use and then returned to storage as necessary. By automating the process, the need for warehouse employees shuttling product back and forth within a facility is removed, allowing for increased efficiency and faster order fulfillment.
AS/RS can be used in both split case or full case order fulfillment, and can take many forms, which we explore below.
Shuttles are a form of automatic storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) that deliver product via a shuttle that runs on a track within a racking structure. AS/RS shuttles are typically used for split case or full case order fulfillment and for wave or order buffering and sequencing.
AS/RS shuttles can operate on a single level or multiple levels. Shuttles can be battery- or capacitor-powered and are intelligently designed to know when to recharge or they can draw power from a power rail along the travel path traversed by the shuttle bot. When an item is requested, the shuttle drives to the location of the product and retrieves its tote/carton. It will then take the tote/carton directly to a workstation or transfer it to a conveyor to convey the tote/carton to a workstation.
A shuttle can deliver product at high speeds, and its configurations can be flexible and scalable. To increase throughput, more shuttles can be added to a system, and more physical storage locations can be provided by lengthening aisles or adding more aisles all together.
Shuttles can accommodate various product sizes and can store product at very high density levels regardless of space. Shuttles can be one level where a shuttle is dedicated to one storage level of the rack. Shuttles can also roam from one level to another by traveling on a lift when rates are such that this loss in efficiency wont hurt overall throughput. Some types of picking systems have shuttles or bots which are autonomous and travel throughout the system.
Finally, there are Multiple Level Shuttles (MLS), where a shuttle is dedicated to service multiple levels of storage with one physical bot. The MLS has a mechanical lift which is aboard the shuttle that allows the shuttle to store or retrieve cartons or totes.
Shuttles also provide a built-in redundancy. If a shuttle goes down or needs repair, your system will not be at a standstill. The other shuttles can still continue to work and deliver product. Depending on the configuration selected only a portion of the inventory may be inaccessible.
One of the most effective technologies available for case-sized storage and picking is mini-load AS/RS. A Mini Load AS/RS utilizes a high speed, automatic crane that traverses a very narrow aisle of tall racks, placing and retrieving appropriate cases or totes based on real time operational requirements.
These aisles are often in the range of 20–60 feet tall with aisles 50–250 feet long. An operation can utilize a single aisle or many, depending on the storage, rate, and building requirements. Though precise rate will vary from operation to operation and from application to application, mini-load AS/RS can often achieve case rates of up to 100 cases per hour per aisle.
Mini-load AS/RS is especially suited for operations that require storage locations for a large amount of SKUs but which lack the floor space required for traditional carton-flow shelving to provide a pick face for each SKU. Mini-load AS/RS systems can also be used to buffer and efficiently release/sequence product to picking or palletizing stations, and can be used to automatically replenish pick locations like carton-flow.
Packing and packaging are an important part of the order fulfillment process because of the costs involved, environmental considerations, and the fact that it is the final interaction you will have with your customers’ order. A damaged or poorly packed order can impact your company negatively and result in higher inventory, freight, and labor costs. It can also result in lost customers and a damaged reputation.
Automated packaging is becoming more and more common, especially now that dimensional weight charges, are being frequently charged by small parcel carriers.
Dimensional weight is calculated when the size of a package is used to determine the weight at which it’s rated. The length, width and height of the box are multiplied together and divided by a dimensional factor (the factor is a fixed number set by the carrier) to determine the dimensional weight.
The calculated dimensional weight is then compared to the actual weight of the package. The higher of the two is used to determine the base rate for that shipment.
Cartonization is an algorithmic process which prepares orders for fulfillment by determining the quantity, size, and type of container required to optimize packaging the order. Cartonization can intelligently group the lines of an order into subsets of work for an outbound shipping package.
Cartonization selects shipping packages based on:
- Product characteristics
- Costs of packaging materials
- Cost of packing labor
Cartonization reduces the cubic size needed for the shipping package and allows shipped items to be neat, orderly, and packed in environmentally-friendly packaging. It typically does this by taking into account the following factors:
- Cube and Orientation: Using the product’s actual dimensions and rotating its orientation provides more efficient packing and requires a smaller shipping container. Cube and Orientation yields a smaller shipping container and reduces the amount of dunnage and labor required.
- Product Attributes: Product characteristic such as fragility, leakage, and compressibility must be linked to an order. This allows the right packaging option to be chosen based on the product characteristics.
- Durable goods, such as bagged apparel, can be directed to highly efficient and low-cost packaging such automatic baggers.
- Products that might leak in transit are sent to a station set up to secure caps and containment bags.
- Fragile products may need to be directed to a special handling station to use a specific type of dunnage.
- Different products within the same order may need to be packed in separate shipping containers.
- Special Handling, such as gift wrapping, additional checking, or customer-specific collateral may be required within an order. Cartonization identifies these types of orders, then the WES uses the information to group similar orders together for shipping.
Cartonization can also be configured to select the least expensive container based on material and packing labor costs.
An automated shipping system has the potential to replace fifteen to twenty manual checking and parcel manifesting stations by automating the manual tasks associated with shipping orders. This is typically achieved in a number of stages.
Weigh in Motion Scale (WIM) and Dimensioning (DWS)
A weigh in motion (WIM) scale is essentially a belt conveyor mounted atop load cells that is used to capture the weight of a carton while it is motion. The system also includes a dimensioner that captures all of the dimensions of each carton that passes the system. This information (weight and dimensions) is used in rate shopping and to avoid dimensional weight surcharges. If a carton fails the dim weight ratio it can be diverted to an area for repackaging into a shipping carton that meets acceptable guidelines.
In order to accurately scan and process shipments to find their dimensional weight, inbound cartons must have enough gap between them or they cannot be processed. The pitch (or head to head carton distance) that is required is calculated in advance and is achieved through changes in speed or a dynamic raising or lowering on a series of belts. This allows cartons to be presented to the WIM scale in a way that ensures that only one carton at a time is on the unit.
Automated Manifesting System
Once the dimensional weight is known, it is possible for an automated shipping system to rate shop in order to find the lowest-cost carrier for each shipment. (This will depend on a number of factors in addition to dimensional weight, including shipping service requirements and shipping location.) This provides the opportunity to realize the lowest possible shipping cost by comparing major carriers for parcel and LTL shipments.
At the end of the system, a verification scan checks that the correct shipping label matches the carton ID. Confirmed cartons are sorted to the specific carrier lane for palletizing or direct loading.
Print & Apply System (PANDA)
Placing a label while cartons continuously flow on the system is accomplished by integrating a print and apply (PANDA) sub system.
Once the correct shipping method is determined and the label string is ready to be transferred by the manifesting engine, it can be sent to the PANDA system for processing. By maintaining the product alignment and separation achieved earlier in the dimensioning and weighing subsystems, cartons can be accurately presented to the PANDA system for processing. Label applicators are configured to place the label on either the front, sides, or tops of cartons while they travel in motion.
The order fulfillment and materials handling industries, like most others, are constantly evolving in order to meet changing customer expectations and address new challenges and needs. Though it is impossible to predict with one hundred percent certainty what these changes will look like, it is possible to spot trends in the industry and use those trends to inform today’s strategies.
When it comes to warehouse automation, a number of trends have begun to emerge in the field over the past few decades. Some of these trends relate specifically to new automation technologies; others to changes in warehouse design; and others to the changes that ecommerce have brought to the order fulfillment industry. All of these trends are expected to continue to impact the order fulfillment industry in the coming decades.
Increased Use of Modeling Softwares
The use of modeling and profiling softwares is becoming more and more prevalent in designing warehouses and distribution centers. These softwares enable a comprehensive understanding of the physical space of a facility, which leads to a number of important benefits:
- More intelligent placement of inventory that takes into consideration factors like churn rate and product affinity, which makes it possible for orders to be picked more efficiently.
- More efficient use of physical space, reducing the need to build a costly new facility or expand an existing operation.
- A smarter slotting strategy that uses historical and forecasted demand to help your operation store product in the most efficient manner.
Though these softwares play a critical role in the early stages of a design build, they also play a critical role in identifying areas of an operation that can benefit from an automated system. By modeling different scenarios, these softwares can make it easier to pinpoint bottlenecks and identify weaknesses or areas of improvement that would most benefit from automation.
The Impacts of Ecommerce
For many order fulfillment operations, ecommerce now accounts for a larger share of orders filled than ever before, and this trend is only going to continue and strengthen as time goes on and more and more shoppers opt to make purchases online instead of in-store.
This trend towards ecommerce has brought with it a number of changes to how many operations process their orders. For the most part, these changes revolve around the fact that today’s online shoppers tend to make more frequent—but smaller—orders, which has effectively changed the typical order profile that most operations now work with. This change in order profile has of course led to broader changes within the order fulfillment process which continues to drive warehouse automation.
An Increased Reliance on Polybags
Due to the changes in order profile caused by ecommerce, many order fulfillment centers have made the switch to polybags as their preferred packaging material, and with good reason: They are one of the least expensive packaging materials for durable consumer goods.
Polybags can cost as little as $.012 per bag, compared to $0.75–$1.50 for a small carton. By packing tightly in shipping trailers, the use of polybags also allows shippers to avoid dimensional weight charges that would typically be charged for other kinds of packaging that use more space.
The challenge with the increased use of polybags in order fulfillment is that they are one of the more difficult products to convey and sort reliably. This difficulty mostly stems from the fact that the polybags, being pliable, can become caught and tangled on different components of certain types of sorters or other machinery. This of course has the potential to damage the packaging, the product, and the technology itself.
Today, polybags are most reliably handled on belt sorters, but shoe sorters are being re-engineered to handle polybags in the future, and it is very likely that other types of sorters will be retrofitted or reengineered in the future to accommodate the increased use of polybags.
Older operations, built to handle different kinds of orders which are now making more of a switch to ecommerce (and polybag use), would be wise to ensure that their systems are capable of handling polybags.
More Automated Goods-to-Person Technology
Because ecommerce is changing average order size and frequency, automated goods-to-person (G2P) systems are becoming more popular in discreetly picking orders.
These automated technologies allow moderately-sized ecommerce order fulfillment operations to lower their costs and increase efficiency in ways that would be difficult to achieve with warehouse workers, and are becoming faster and more efficient with each new generation.
Automated goods-to-person technologies are also leading to new developments in other areas of order fulfillment, such as sortation, by combining certain functionalities with others. An example of this is the pouch/pocket sorter, which is well suited to ecommerce orders. Product is batch picked like with tilt-tray sorters, but the pouch/pocket sorter delivers orders directly to packing stations without the need for an additional touch or conveyor.
As time goes on, we expect that the principles of automated goods-to-person technology will continue to seep into other systems and allow for greater efficiency to be realized across an operation.
Increased Reliance on Robotics
When most people think about robotics, they think about things like the General Motors assembly line or the humanoid robots being developed in Japan. But, in reality, the field of robotics already touches much of what goes into modern order fulfillment, and will continue to play a larger role as time goes on.
In most locations within an operation where tasks are repetitive and predictable, robotics has the potential to increase productivity and reduce reliance on costly labor.
Roaming robotics can travel the floor of a storage area and use vision, camera technology, and advanced grippers to pick product required for orders. Improvements in this technology can also allow robotics to be integrated into goods-to-person stations, where even the person can now be removed. Given the right mixture of product geometry and storage method this technology is no longer impractical as its capabilities increase and costs continue to drop.
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs)
In addition to other forms of automation like goods-to-person, etc., the explosion in popularity of automated guided vehicles (AGVs) is a great example of the outsized role that robotics are going to continue to play in order fulfillment.
AGVs, in the form of robotic forklifts and other devices, can be linked to a warehouse execution software and used to shuttle product from location to location within a warehouse or distribution center, ensuring that it is exactly where it is needed when it is needed. As the technology continues to be refined and developed, it is likely that AGVs will become even more commonplace in every step of the order fulfillment process: Loading, unloading, sorting, picking, storage, etc.
Wearable Technology in the Warehouse
When Google Glass was announced in 2012, there was a lot of interest across multiple industries, manufacturing and order fulfillment being one of them. DHL and a number of other operations experimented with the technology as a means to enable for faster selection and order picking, often to great success.
Even though the original Google Glass is a thing of the past, the interest in augmented reality (AR) that it spawned is very much a part of modern order fulfillment, and the company is currently working on a version of the technology specifically designed for enterprise use like one would expect in a warehouse. Beyond Google Glass, other projects are currently underway by companies like Intel and at least a dozen others.
Visual overlays directing pickers to locations within a warehouse and providing instructions for what product to pick (and how many) allows for workers to be more efficient and productive, and is only going to become more common as the technology continues to develop.
If you think that automation has a role to play in your operation, your first step will be to find the right partner who can help you understand your options and and create a plan to put the appropriate solutions into place. With a little preparation, you can help the process of choosing a partner go much more smoothly.
In large part, this preparation is centered around:
- Understanding your operation through the lens of key metrics
- Understanding what you hope to gain from automation project
- Understanding your options in finding a partner (a systems integrator vs. a consultant)
Key Metrics to Help Identify Your Needs
In order to conceptualize the achievable business goals that will be necessary to guide your project through from start to finish, you must first have a clear understanding of certain of your operation’s key performance indicators (KPIs) and other data.
In order to frame your thinking around your project, and to facilitate meaningful conversations with your eventual partner, it’s advisable that you have these numbers on hand before moving forward:
- SKU Base: How many SKUs the facility currently handles.
- Available Capacity: The buildable footprint available within the facility to accommodate the operation.
- Volumetrics: What is the typical average order volume, and what does the order volume surge to at peak times.
- Staffing/Labor Hours: How many labor hours are dedicated to your current operation during times of typical order volume as well as peak surge times.
- Pain Points: What challenges in your current operation are the biggest sources of pain—be it related to labor concerns, volume surge, efficiency, human error, etc.
With a good gut-sense of the critical metrics outlined above, you’re ready to start the conversation.
Are there other metrics you should also have at the ready for your conversation? Absolutely. These additional metrics, though not critical, will help add color to the conversation and allow both you and a potential design partner to speak the same language and arrive at the best solution for your operation more quickly:
- On-Time Shipping: The percentage of orders shipped on time.
- Total Order Cycle Time: The average processing time from the point a customer places an order to the point it is shipped.
- Internal Order Cycle Time: The average internal processing time from the point a customer order is released into the warehouse for processing to when that order is shipped.
- Perfect Order Percentage: Includes on-time deliveries, complete shipments, damage-free shipments, and correct documentation.
- Dock-to-Stock Cycle Time: The amount of time from when goods enter the warehouse to when it is put away and available for sale within the Warehouse Management System (WMS).
- Inbound Orders Received: The number of inbound orders processed per person in an hour at receiving.
- Lines Received and Put Away: Inbound lines processed per person in an hour at receiving.
- Fill Rate—Orders: The percentage of orders filled 100% complete to the total number of orders filled.
- Fill Rate—Line Items: A ratio of order lines filled 100% to the total number of order lines.
- Orders Picked per Hour: Order fulfillment and shipping productivity in lines per hour per person.
- Lines Picked and Shipped per Hour: Productivity of picking and shipping lines per person.
- Distribution Cost (as percentage of sales): The cost to run distribution operations relative to total sales.
- Distribution Cost (per unit shipped): The cost to run distribution operations relative to the total units shipped through the operation.
- Inventory Days of Supply: Finished goods inventory on hand to cover a number of days of projected usage.
- Number of Active SKUs: How many SKUs the facility currently handles.
- Projected SKU Change: The change (increase or decrease) in the number of SKUs the facility will handle in the future.
- SKU Specifications: Design specs like length, width, height, and weight which may impact storage and handling.
- Storage Requirements: Any special requirements for storage (refrigeration, deep-freeze, climate- or humidity-controlled, etc.).
Having this information on hand before speaking to a systems integrator or design consultant will ultimately help you to pinpoint the exact areas in your operation that are ideal for optimization, and which can benefit the most from automation.
Goals (and Constraints) of the Project
Once you have a clear understanding of your operation’s metrics, you must set goals for the project. What are your primary and secondary motivations for seeking to automate all of part of your facility?
These goals should follow the SMART Goal framework, in that they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. By framing them in this way, you will have a clearer sense of what you want to gain from your automation project, which will make articulating your goals to a partner much easier. This, in turn, will allow the final automation plan to be tailored to your specific needs and objectives.
If your primary goal in automating a portion of your warehouse is to address a shortage of labor, for example, that is likely to require a very different solution than if your goal is to reduce overhead or boost efficiency.
Just as important as understanding and communicating the goals of the project, though, is understanding and communicating any constraints. For example, a limited budget may place certain technologies out of reach. A condensed timeline might make a complete redesign unrealistic. A small footprint may make it difficult to implement certain technologies, or require creative solutions.
Understanding Your Options: Systems Integrator vs. Design Consultant
Once you have an understanding of your operation’s metrics and the goals of the automation project, you will need to select a partner who can help you decide upon solutions and put them in place.
In most cases, that will mean choosing either a systems integrator or a warehouse design consultant. Though similar, there are certain key differences between these two options which you should consider before moving forward with your project.
The main difference between a systems integrator and a warehouse design consultant is the focus of their work: Whereas systems integrators are most concerned about implementing systems and technologies to make your operation as efficient as possible, design consultants are more likely to take a broader view of your business as a whole, which may entail corporate strategy and more.
It is also important to note that systems integrators often have relationships with vendors of various technologies, while design consultants often do not. These relationships can be beneficial to you, the client, because a quality systems integrator may be able to leverage their relationships with vendors to provide additional cost savings on technology and equipment.
While it is true that a reputable systems integrator will offer their unbiased opinion when it comes time to make recommendations on various technologies, it is very possible for the integrator to have a preference in who they feel more comfortable working with. That being said, this concern speaks more to the quality and reputation of individual systems integrators than it does to the profession as a whole and in the end the overall recommendations of the integrator should be for the benefit of the customer.
Additionally, warehouse design consultants and systems integrators often follow different fee structures for their services. Most of the time, a systems integrator will provide at least some level of analysis up front without any compensation; a design consultant is typically a paid engagement right from the beginning of your relationship. This will of course have an impact on the ultimate budget for your project, so it’s important to understand any budgetary constraints before you start your engagement.
Choosing the Right Partner for Your Project
Not sure whether it makes more sense to work with a systems integrator or a design consultant on your warehouse automation project? Ask yourself these questions:
What kind of analysis do you hope to gain from the engagement?
- If you are mainly concerned with just your warehouse or distribution center, or with certain technologies, then a systems integrator is probably the right choice for you.
- If you would like a more in-depth analysis of your business structure and workflows, etc., then a design consultant may be better positioned to help you reach your goals.
Do you have budgetary constraints?
- If so, a systems integrator, who is likely to offer at least some basic analysis up front without charge, may bring more value than a design consultant, who is likely to charge you for their time from the first conversation.
Are you looking for a short-term or long-term partnership?
A systems integrator is responsible for the technical application of equipment and systems as well as lifecycle support, and as such they will have the best understanding to help you make adjustments and changes as time goes on and business requirements change.
Converting your operation to one that is fully- or partially-automated is a big investment, in terms not only of capital but also time, effort, and energy. That’s why it’s important, once your warehouse automation project is complete and your new technologies and systems are in place, that you do not fall into a “set it and forget it” mindset.
If you want to get the most ROI out of your investment in automation, then your goal should be to keep your new technologies and systems running as smoothly as possible for as long as possible. To reach this goal, you will need to devote some resources to maintenance and lifecycle support. Typically, this lifecycle support strategy will consist of two equally important elements: Day-to-day maintenance, and regular system audits.
Daily maintenance is critical to ensuring that you are able to get the most out of your technology, systems, and machinery. When you are working with a system that consists of numerous moving components—like a sorter, conveyor, or other automated technology—it is almost a guarantee that you will eventually face some sort of mechanical issue.
Though these issues cannot be prevented 100 percent of the time, proper maintenance of your systems can go a long way in reducing their likelihood, intensity, and duration of downtime with the associated loss of production.
What should this daily maintenance look like? That will vary widely depending on your systems and the size of your facility, but at a minimum should include a dedicated maintenance team who is trained to troubleshoot problems and keep your systems running, and who can proactively identify problems before they occur. It is also critical that you keep essential spare parts on hand so that you can quickly correct an issue if one arises, to prevent unnecessary operational downtime.
Regular Audits of Your Systems
In addition to daily maintenance, it is recommended that you conduct an audit at least once every 12 months, regardless of the specific systems that you have in place in your operation. Doing so allows you to identify relatively minor issues (requiring minor repairs) before they turn into catastrophic issues (requiring major repairs, and downtime in your facility).
The system should be assessed while running so that all moving parts can be observed. If a component is not performing properly, repair or replacement will be recommended. Though a properly-trained maintenance team may be able to audit your systems, it is common for systems integrators to offer a systems auditing service.
During this audit, physical components of the machinery should be reviewed and evaluated for wear and tear.
It is especially important to conduct a system audit if you have neglected preventative maintenance, your system is experiencing increased downtime, or you find that you have needed to replace wear components in your system more frequently, as each of these may point to a larger issue needing to be addressed.
Additionally, if your technologies are more than ten years old it is recommended that an audit be conducted to see if there are areas where they may benefit from upgrades.
Over the course of those ten years, it is very likely that your operation went through countless changes in terms of the product you handle (size, quantity, packaging, etc.), the clients you serve, and maybe even the businesses your organization owns. For example: If your system was built to handle only retail shipments ten years ago, chances are good that today you are servicing ecommerce orders that, by their nature, are significantly smaller than the materials that your system was originally designed to handle.
The video below serves as a case study of just one example of warehouse automation in practice and includes multiple automation technologies working seamlessly together to help Lindt Chocolate optimize their warehouse operation.
The Bottom Line
Regardless of your industry focus, the challenges you face, or the age of your operation, taking a look at warehouse automation can lead to big gains for your business.
By reducing labor gaps, increasing workplace safety, and allowing for more meaningful analysis at all levels of your operation, automation allows you to be more efficient; by reducing costs and overhead, it allows you to become more profitable. Both of those things mean happier customers and, ultimately, a fatter bottom line for your business.