Other Voices: We don’t want to sell you conveyor

By · May 23, 2012

Editor’s Note: The following column by Travis Baker, director of marketing for the automated systems division of SSI Schaefer US, is part of Modern’s new Other Voices column. The series, published on Wednesdays, will feature ideas, opinions and insights from end users, analysts, systems integraters and OEMs. Click on the link to learn about submitting a column for consideration.

You probably never thought you’d hear an automation company claim it doesn’t want to sell you conveyor. But, we don’t. Well, at least not in a highly-automated distribution center. That is especially true in piece picking operations such as those for ecommerce. There, conveyor is a necessary evil.  After all, conveyor’s only function is to move a product.

I have been in DC’s that have loops and loops of conveyor just to stall the product so that the rest of the system can catch up to it. Those 933 miles of gleaming metal are a salesman’s dream, but from an efficiency standpoint, all that does is increase the footprint of your facility and increase the cost of your system.

On reflection though, it is not solely the conveyor that is the problem, but any component whose main purpose is just to move product from the storage device to the picker or out the door.  It’s insidious, whatever shape it takes; be it traditional conveyor, forklifts or robots.  It’s all just conveyor at heart.

So if we don’t want to sell conveyor for an automated system, what do we want to sell?  Well, where an automated solution is tested, where it lives and breathes, is where the product hits the hand of the picker. That is the most important part of the system. It also presents the greatest opportunity to increase efficiency. With today’s automated picking solutions, that can be done in a relatively compact footprint with less conveyor than in the past. Here’s how. 

The Goods to Person Workstation
A piece picking operation for ecommerce is a good example of what I’m talking about. In that type of operation, you want three things from your workstation: efficiency, ergonomics and a worker friendly user interface to the order fulfillment software.

Let’s look at efficiency first.  You want a workstation that can get you the correct assortment of SKUs dictated by the orders, when they dictate them. You also want to fill as many orders as you can at one time.
These two requirements involve having a wide array of storage totes coming from the storage locations and an array of shipping totes going out to staging or shipping.  Both of these are needed to drive the throughput that you want to achieve from your system.

Ergonomics is the second item we will look at.  You want the people fulfilling the order to not only be able to do it fast, but to do it comfortably.  This will limit the problems caused by repetitive motion.

The goal is to limit any movement where a person has to lift an item up. Ideally, everything should move down vs. up.  You also want to present the storage units to pickers at a comfortable level no matter their height, so an adjustable platform is necessary too.  The key is to limit uncomfortable motion while allowing people to retain some flexibility in stepping a bit to either side.

Third and finally, the user interface.  While a lot of this is tied to both ergonomics and efficiency, it is a section unto itself.  The workstation (thorough the WMS) needs to be able to guide the picker to limit mistakes and confusion.  A great interface should also be easy to read, interpret, and not put any mental strain on the picker.

The best workstations will also be a nice environment in which to work.  The aesthetics of a workstation are important to consider.  Don’t you want to work in a nice area?

When you pull those three elements together, you deliver the goods to a compact, efficient and user-friendly work station that minimizes walking and travel time. In the right situation, that also eliminates the need for the miles of conveyor associated with a multi-level picking mezzanine or a long piece pick zone in a semi-automated picking solution. That also reduces the amount of non-value-added travel by associates on lift trucks or mobile robots traversing a facility. Position the workstation close to the shipping area and you also eliminate your conveyance requirements to packing and shipping.

So what do you think is the most important part of a workstation?  How have you eliminated “conveyor” in your DC in the interest of cost savings or increased efficiency.

About the Author

Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.