Reduce Travel Time with Robots to Boost Warehouse Efficiency
When it comes to order fulfillment, time is money. The faster your workers can complete the tasks assigned to them (picking, replenishing and packing), the more they can do over the course of their shift, and the more profitable your operation can become.
Unfortunately, order fulfillment consists of many time-intensive tasks that, while essential, do not necessarily add enough value to the operation to justify the expense.
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Two such examples are order picking and inventory replenishment, which we explore in more detail below. Both are necessary parts of the order fulfillment process, but when they are not handled efficiently they can severely eat into an operation’s ability to be profitable. Case-in-point: Walking and manually picking orders can account for more than 50% of the time associated with picking—every minute of a reduced walking time can be used for picking.
The lesson is clear. For order fulfillment operations struggling with a rise in ecommerce orders, increasing labor costs or an inability to fill open positions, or for those who simply have a desire to increase efficiency, increase the number of units handled per foot traveled within your facility is one of the surest ways to become more efficient, productive, and profitable.
Regardless of the size or maturity of your operation, there are a number of robotics and automation-focused solutions that can help you meet these goals.
Reducing Travel Time Associated with Order Picking
Because inventory replenishment is a relatively simple process within most operations, automating the process is an easy task. Meanwhile, more complicated tasks that consist of many moving pieces are, naturally, more of a challenge to automate. But simply writing off a process as being “too complex to automate” can lead to an operation leaving substantial efficiency gains on the table.
Order picking is one such process where automation return on investment (ROI) needs to meet your business requirements. But even partial automation can lead to significant reductions in travel time and an overall increase in productivity. Two autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) solutions, in particular, have great potential in this area: Order Routing and goods-to-person (G2P) picking.
1. Order Routing
Available in a variety of types, autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are capable of performing a number of different tasks, making it relatively easy to augment your operation’s picking process with AMRs in order to reduce travel time.
Depending on the specifics of how your operation’s pick process works, it may be possible to use AMRs in a number of ways. Historically, only conveyor has been used to move order containers or SKU containers to pickers. They tend to be linear and expensive once you’ve added scanners and zone diverts. AMRs, on the other hand, can be used to move the containers without blocking travel lanes.
Many AMRs can act, essentially, as intelligent pick carts, supporting workers as they go about picking orders. In addition to physically carrying the items and totes, AMRs can integrate with an operation’s warehouse execution software in order to intelligently guide the picker through their zone. They can handle 6-25 orders at one time, depending on the model, while reducing picker travel and handling time.
Paired with a pick-to-light or pick-to-voice technology, this can reduce friction in the pick process and allow for more efficient picking. The AMR can tow or carry the cart. It can take it to only the zones where there are picks required. It can take the cart to any spot within a zone reducing a pickers unproductive travel of having to return and start each order at the same location regardless of where the first and last pick are within their zone. Once all orders on the robot are filled, the AMR can then transport them to the next zone or to packing and/or shipping.
Whereas AMRs can be leveraged to partially automate an operation’s picking process in order to reduce travel time, implementing a goods-to-person system is much closer to full automation.
A form of automatic storage and retrieval (AS/RS), goods-to-person works by delivering SKUs to individual pick stations, where workers fill orders. Because G2P delivers product directly to the worker, picker travel time is nearly eliminated, allowing workers to spend nearly all of their time fulfilling orders and wasting less time walking aisles or zones.
Though implementing goods-to-person will lead to significant time savings, the solution does not make sense for all operations. Generally speaking, goods-to-person can be difficult to cost-justify if the volumes require too many AMRs to achieve the required order volumes. But for operations with the right volume and floor space, it should be seriously considered.
Reducing Travel Time Associated with Inventory Replenishment
Without inventory replenishment, order fulfillment couldn’t happen—simply because, without it, there would be no inventory from which orders could be generated. Inventory must be regularly replenished in an ordered, predictable way, or the entire operation will grind to a halt.
For many operations, the task of inventory replenishment is performed manually, with laborers using forklifts to transport goods from the production line or the dock to storage. But instead of relying on human-driven forklifts, it is relatively easy for an operation to automate this task with autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) or automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) so that employees can be deployed to other, higher-value tasks.
Exactly how much travel time this will reduce is difficult to generalize, as it will depend on a number of different factors—how often your operation’s inventory must be replenished, the location of storage within your facility compared to the location of the production line or receiving dock, etc.—but under the right circumstances, it is possible to realize significant benefits.
Saving Time, Boosting Efficiency
By leveraging robotics and various other automation solutions, it is possible for order fulfillment operations of all sizes and levels of maturity to significantly decrease the amount of time personnel spends traveling while performing tasks associated with inventory replenishment and order picking. These reductions will naturally lead to a boost in efficiency, as workers are able to do more during their shift. If you’re having difficulty understanding exactly what role robotics can play in your operation, or which technologies make the most sense for you to pursue, a trusted systems integrator can help you figure out the best path forward.