Goods-to-person technologies evolve and expand
Just when warehousing and distribution operations were getting their arms around the concept of lean, the e-commerce wave swept many of those lean tenets aside. Companies now strive to add inventory and product lines, where personalization options, for example, can instantly turn one stock-keeping unit (SKU) into 10. The transition to each picking from primarily handling case and pallet volumes has further compounded the labor costs associated with pickers moving to fixed product locations. Goods-to-person (G2P) solutions, once ideal only for fairly specific applications, have evolved and expanded to offer a greater variety for those looking to boost service levels while reducing labor costs.
“E-commerce has increased the amount of item picking in the distribution environment immensely, which creates productivity and space issues and requires a completely different process,” says Markus Schmidt, president of Swisslog WDS Americas. “As item pick volume and SKU count keep going up, it almost becomes unmanageable if you don’t automate some of it.”
The unpredictability of e-commerce can strain even nimble operations, and G2P has emerged as way to add flexibility, especially in the face of dramatic seasonal peaks. Schmidt says the last 10 years have seen the introduction of G2P technologies offering more choices of inventory engines. Previously, the options were limited to solutions like carousels or mini-load systems feeding pick stations.
Shuttles came on the scene in the mid-2000s and could feed pick stations at higher speeds. Then systems based on mobile robots such as Kiva, AutoStore and PerfectPick came along. Pouch sorting is another solution gaining steam. Along the way, software advances changed how these engines operate.
“The United States is starting a journey, and we already see a shift from low- and mid-level automation like conveyor and ‘pick-and-pass’ to solutions with less labor,” says Benny Rokni, senior director of solution strategy for Dematic. “In Scandinavia, they don’t want people in the facility at all. Regulations are such that they don’t care about cost and return on investment (ROI). That is a proxy for the type of mentality that is coming to the United States. There is more emphasis on cycle time, customer service and extending business value to their customers, as opposed to looking at hard ROIs like they used to.”
Goods-to-robot solutions are in development, and many can interface seamlessly with existing G2P systems.
Schmidt says that the industry’s change requires a shift in mindset that will not always come easy to distributors.
“The conventional approach is to solve problems by adding labor. With automation, that won’t happen,” he says. “You have to make sure the machine is well-maintained and downtime is minimized. It’s more of a production mindset.”
Driven by increasingly impatient consumers, Rokni says the distribution world is in the midst of “the perfect storm” for adopting G2P solutions. Consumer expectations have forced distributors to have a large population of SKUs and access them very rapidly. Rokni says the family of solutions he calls “multi-processing, storage-and-retrieval technologies” have risen to the challenge by presenting as many as 1,000 loads per hour to a picker. This might enable a shuttle system to house an entire SKU base as opposed to just slow-movers, but it also places demands on the human operators tasked with keeping up.
“A lot of ergonomic byproducts start to emerge,” Rokni says. “You have to bring product out of the storage media at such a high velocity that the operator needs to be able to pick and sustain a high rate for a full shift, day after day. It’s given rise to high-performing ergonomic pick stations that eliminate turning, bending, twisting and provide clear information and instructions, including graphical displays, automatic scales and vision assists, whether wearable or with lights mounted overhead.”
High-speed picking also makes an impact upstream and downstream, and modern G2P systems are designed to account for potential bottlenecks and ensure product movement is streamlined throughout the facility. Rokni describes one customer who put in a very sophisticated G2P system, but decided to maintain a wave approach to packing and shipping. “That really handicapped the speed of the picking side,” he says. “There’s a domino effect if you’re not optimizing end-to-end.”
Each customer has different goals, but Rokni says reduced cycle time is a common theme. This leads to systems with less accumulation, less conveyor and less work in progress. Inside a shuttle, these goals are supported by new capabilities like inter-aisle transfer that eliminates front-end conveyors by passing items from aisle to aisle within the shuttle. To manipulate and sequence items inside the inventory engine instead of out on the floor requires robust software, what Rokni calls the “secret sauce” to a successful G2P solution.
Not long ago, G2P was a bit of black magic understood only by the folks who made it, according to Dave Lodwig, account and marketing executive for Conveyco. Now, integrators are more intimately involved in system design and bringing their own complement of software tools to the table.
“It used to be this business was an equipment business. The customer knew what they wanted, and when comparing two G2P providers they bought the best value,” Lodwig says. “Today, they’re not asking for equipment. They’re asking for an operational outcome. They don’t say ‘we have a throughput issue,’ they say they can’t maintain service levels to meet the growth of the company.”
Robot “swarms” can sequence and deliver goods to stationary pickers in conventional shelving environments.
Software is fundamental to orchestrating G2P’s place within the operation. There are plenty of cautionary tales about “islands of automation” grafted awkwardly onto a conventional warehouse management system (WMS). Successful integration means considering a lot of fine details, Schmidt says, like trigger points for replenishment or whether automation will be used as a forward pick buffer, for example.
“You won’t get optimal flow if replenishment processes are not ideal. You’ll get split picks and generally unreliable operation,” he says. “You might not get the efficiency you had planned to get from the automation, then everyone is frustrated because you have beautiful new automation that functions within itself, but the overall flow suffers. You want to avoid buying a fast car, but no gas.”
Doug Card, director of systems and special applications for Kardex Remstar, recommends getting IT departments involved early to define how software integrates with workflows and how order data is passed between enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and the WMS. This is also the time when many customers express an appetite for Internet of Things connectivity, which leverages a G2P system’s internal sensors to collect and relay actionable information to technicians.
Hardware isn’t the only thing that degrades over time and requires maintenance. Initial plans for slotting based on SKU profiles, inventory and on-hand balances are typically configured with precision. Over time, those plans slip farther out of sync with reality.
“Especially with how SKU profiles change, what was true two years ago is not always the same, and many customers are not good at keeping up with that,” Card says. “They put in the inventory, and then it takes on a life of its own.”
Inventory grooming can be a tedious process, so Card says solution providers are developing dynamic slotting and control software to help automate the process. With full visibility into SKU velocities, a G2P solution’s inventory can be profiled as slow-, medium- and fast-movers, or A, B and C. The solution can then make recommendations over time, perhaps identifying wasted productivity when a C item is in an A location.
Each product detail rolls up into the software coordinating the entire system. Chris Capshaw, executive director of automation sales for SSI Schaefer Systems International, says G2P solutions are focused on fully integrated software, including warehouse execution systems (WES), WMS, inventory tracking, order management and labor management. Only a holistic view of interrelated data sets can enable full control of system performance.
“With an old system, the order pool is not fully available to the G2P automation,” Capshaw says. “Depending on how often you run a wave, you might just miss an order that was optimal to pick. With fully integrated software, it’s possible to optimize in real time, and G2P can present an item within minutes of the consumer placing an order online.”
This software doesn’t just provide value to the fulfillment operation. It also adds value to consumers who demand speed and visibility into the process. The same software coordinating the G2P system can offer a consumer to-the-minute details of when the item was picked, packed and shipped.
Similarly, Dematic’s Rokni emphasizes the consumer value of extending order windows.
“A gain in performance is one thing, but more important is a gain in customer service,” he says. “If you can push back your order cutoff time from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. or later, that can be a huge advantage in e-commerce, and those are the types of things software can provide.”
Goods to robot
Software is also fundamental to the growing presence of robotics in G2P solutions, which enables new modes of fulfillment. Troy VanWormer, director, warehouse automation on the West Coast for OPEX, was an OPEX customer before he joined the company. As vice president of operations for iHerb, a pure-play e-commerce health food and vitamin supplement company, VanWormer oversaw the replacement of a semi-automated system with a G2P system. Previously, a three-level pick module supported batch picking, with a large shelving area for low-velocity items and a pallet storage area for high-velocity items. Accuracy was poor, VanWormer recalls, because whenever a picker counts 20+ items into totes for single picks there is increased risk of over- or under-picks at the put wall.
The new solution is a variation on the shuttle concept and is populated by a fleet of robots each capable of accessing any location in an aisle. The G2P systems’ discrete order picking boosted accuracy to the high 99 percentile, and the company elected to use the same system in a new facility on the East Coast. The new facilities are half the square footage, produce double the throughput, and average 10 cents per unit to 25 cents per unit less than the earlier batch pick and put wall setup.
“The system can comfortably achieve 350 to 400 tote presentations per hour, and 800 units per hour, per aisle,” VanWormer says. “Even better, we can get a shipping label on a box within 20 minutes of the order being placed, which is essential if you want to be competitive.”
As robot capabilities evolve, they are also migrating out of storage media and can be found roaming independently in conventional warehouses. John Hayes, vice president of sales and marketing for logistics for Vecna Robotics, says customers desire to one day rely heavily on G2P systems, but they want to go about it carefully.
“Jumping right into automation is a huge undertaking that involves shutting down and restarting with a whole new system,” Hayes says. “There is some reluctance, and I think a healthy fear of getting fully up to speed. They don’t think they can get there on day one, so they want a solution to bridge the gap.”
Hayes describes a system consisting of two specialized robots capable of working in standard shelving environments. The first robot retrieves totes or boxes from a range of shelf heights and can store, sequence or deliver several at a time. The second is a small single-tote robot that can supplement product movement and mobility.
“It’s a swarm type of system, with lots of smaller units working essentially independently based on instructions from the upper-level system,” Hayes says. “They offer a means to transport goods to the person in a more logical and efficient manner. What shows up to them is a bin from anywhere in a warehouse, delivered based on demand, not FIFO.”
Of course, that assumes the robots are delivering goods to a human picker. Whether roving robots, shuttles or classic mini-loads and carousels, the concept of goods-to-robot (G2R) systems is close. Software, vision sensors and end effector tooling have come a long way over the last five years, Rokni says, and there is still “tremendous” research and development in those spaces.
Schmidt agrees, and says he expects the next five to 10 years will see economical G2R solutions rolled out at a large scale.
“And if a customer invests in G2P solutions today,” Schmidt says, “there will be no reason they can’t use a robot once they’re ready.”
Companies mentioned in this article: