Increase Throughput with Warehouse Automation

Looking to increase your fulfillment operation’s throughput — that is, the flow rate of e-commerce orders picked, packed and shipped per hour? That’s a terrific goal that can often be achieved with an investment in one (or more) automated technologies, as opposed to hiring more associates.

While an increase in headcount can deliver a boost in throughput, it also can lead to more congestion within specific areas of a facility, as well as a decrease in order accuracy, as human beings are known to make mistakes. Therefore, adding an automated solution will not only increase throughput but also improve accuracy without adding more employees.

There are many automated technology solutions available in the market. Here, we’ll explore three different systems — in order of the scope of financial investment — that we’ve seen markedly improve e-commerce order fulfillment throughput rates.

1. Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs). While automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) have been used in distribution and manufacturing processes for decades, their smaller counterparts, AMRs, have increasingly made inroads into warehousing and order fulfillment operations. Manufactured and marketed by a long list of suppliers, AMRs are offered by 6 River Systems, Waypoint Robotics, Clearpath Robotics, Locus Robotics, Fetch Robotics, and more. These self-navigating robots are smaller and lighter than AGVs, and handle smaller, lighter payloads as well.

Compact and equipped with safety sensors that detect the presence of humans, with whom they often work collaboratively (earning them the name “cobots”), AMRs are typically deployed to reduce or eliminate worker travel time. It’s been estimated that picking associates spend up to 70% of their time walking through a facility from location to location. With a fleet of AMRs, pickers can instead be stationed within certain inventory zones. When items are needed to fill orders, tote-carrying AMRs travel to each picker, who places the picks into the tote. By eliminating walking between picks, associates can focus solely on order fulfillment, thereby increasing their throughput. Additionally, AMRs don’t require any physical changes to the facility (unlike a conveyor installation, for example). The robots learn and re-learn their travel paths automatically and safely navigate around obstacles. A fleet can be expanded as needed, with more robots integrated during peak periods. These functions also contribute to a faster return on investment.

2. Shuttle-Fed Put Walls. For the ultimate boost in put wall sortation throughput, these high-speed, automated sorting systems handle a wide variety of items in different sizes and weights at rates in excess of 2,000 items per hour. After large batches of items are picked, they are inducted into the system. The controls equipment scans and identifies the pick and the shuttle deposits it into the correct put wall location — or directly into the shipping carton — for packing to an outbound order. Not only do these systems enable much larger batches of items to be picked and sorted (400 orders at a time instead of the typical 20 to 30 orders at a time), they are compact, replacing as many as twelve traditional put walls for an increase in floorspace utilization as well as throughput.

3. Smart Glasses. Offered by a variety of manufacturers — including Vuzix, Picavi, Google Glass, Smartpick, and others — these wearable devices replace handheld scanners, paper pick lists, and light-directed picking modules to indicate the location of an item to be picked. When integrated with a picking process or a series of put walls for manual sortation of batch picked items, the glasses’ integrated scanning device identifies locations or an object when the wearer looks at it. Then, as the associate looks at the series of cubby openings in the put wall (each representing a unique order), a virtual indicator displayed by the glasses within their field of view shows where to place the item. This “augmented reality/virtual direction” approach speeds up the picking process by eliminating manual scanning and manual sorting to put walls for a boost in fulfillment throughput. Simultaneously, it is significantly less expensive than outfitting every pick location or opening on a put wall with a light-directed module. With large stock keeping unit (SKU) count pick processes incorporating tens of thousands of pick locations, utilizing smart glasses instead of light modules delivers a much faster return on investment. Additionally, the latest smart glasses are industrial grade, rugged, and designed for durability in warehousing and fulfillment installations, with longer-lasting batteries, faster charging, and lightweight form factors that makes wearing for extended periods comfortable. Likewise, as these systems have evolved, their pricing has come down, further contributing to the technology’s affordability.

By the way, lead times for all three of these solutions are averaging approximately six months, meaning that an e-commerce order fulfillment operation can significantly boost its throughput in a relatively short period of time. Want to learn more about how DCS can create a higher throughput solution for your operation? Connect with us.

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AUTHOR:

John Knudsen, Lead Solutions Manager, johnk@designedconveyor.com

A 25-year veteran of the material handling industry in his second year with DCS, John has worn many hats – business modeling, process and system concepting,  system design, project management and implementation, and operational improvement – and has settled in over the past year as the Lead Solutions Manager. Outside of the office, John loves to fish and hunt, and is into traveling and spending time with his family.