Distribution
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Global supply chains are an elaborate orchestration of precise processes that enable products to routinely move from point A to point B without a glitch. One of the more complex components of this logistical symphony is accurate order fulfillment. To maintain accuracy, productivity and efficiency across operations, a variety of factors must be considered.

Physical space, square footage costs, labor expenses, time and coordination of efforts all provide opportunities for both potential problems and continuous improvement in a warehouse. Inbound Logistics points out that labor costs comprise 50 percent or more of a warehouse’s operating expenses and SupplyChain247 notes that more than 50 percent of warehouse resources are typically involved in picking, packing and shipping outbound orders. This means that warehouse operations have the best opportunity for improvement in both accuracy and cost efficiency.

As material flows from receiving through the warehouse, incidents can affect the accuracy and efficiency of orders—whether the physical distance between SKU storage, types of products or number of cases per order line or human picking errors.

Furthermore, consumer demands add to the difficulty of maintaining streamlined order fulfillment. Increases in order volume and SKU variety, as well as changing distribution channels with online and mobile ordering, have altered typical handling processes. These changes require implementing more complex systems and attaining faster turnaround on fulfillment.

Materials handling and supply chain experts are turning to automation to uncover efficiency, accuracy and cost savings in the warehouse and distribution center to remedy these new scenarios.

Automated layer picking

Once product is received, orders can be filled with an automated layer pick system that includes a robot, bridge structure and software. The robot is a combination of a clamping tool and a large gantry that travels on two rails. Underneath the gantry is a staging area with a pallet of every SKU the company offers.

The layer-pick tool utilizes a warehouse control system (WCS) to communicate with the warehouse management system (WMS) and obtain order information, including SKUs, quantities and picking sequences. The WCS then directs the layer pick tool how to build orders and manage replenishment. Once the order is built, it is moved to the loading dock.

Technology in use

Layer pick systems are ideal for food and beverage and consumer goods warehouses and distribution centers that move more than 1,000 layers per day with 50-500 SKUs picked in layer form. One example, a Canadian alcoholic beverage distributor, utilizes four robotic heads on two gantry frames to move 100 different SKUs and averages 150 layers-per-hour with each system.

Alternately, one U.S.-based food manufacturer uses a two-head layer pick system with 250 pallet positions to move 400 layers-per-hour. The solution works in conjunction with an AS/RS, which automatically provides replenishment products to the layer picking system.  When trucks arrive, single- and mixed-SKU pallets are collected, by layer, and easily moved to the loading dock for shipping.

A leading, global manufacturer of personal health and beauty products achieves a throughput of nearly 190 layers-per-hour based on an average of 30 cases per layer. Comparatively, in fully manual picking operations, each person can realistically pick 90 to 250 cases per hour, based on any number of factors within the facility like the type of warehouse, distance between staging areas, and more. In this scenario, the average manual picking rate is 200 cases per hour per person. The layer picking system, with two robotic heads on the gantry, can do the work of more than 30 people per shift, allowing employees to focus on other non-automated tasks.

In total, this layer picking system provides an estimated return of nearly $2 million per year. This is a significant, direct impact on the company’s bottom line and a quick return on investment.

IntermecMis-Picks Cost Businesses Nearly $390,000 Per Year According to Intermec Study, Jan. 2013

Looking to the future

By integrating an automated robotic layer picking system, manufacturers, distributors and supply chain professionals can employ just-in-time order picking, increase efficiency, reduce labor costs, eliminate errors and ensure traceability as products move throughout the facility.

Furthermore, the use of advanced technology solutions automatically creates a repository of data relating to material flow processes, order picking efficiency or productivity. By analyzing this data, warehouse managers can identify opportunities to further improve overall operations based on hard facts and data.

TEXT: LIZ PALM, DPR GROUP  PHOTO: LORI VAUGHAN, GRIMSBY

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