Is It Time to Automate Your Order Fulfillment Operation?

By Scott Hennie, MH Engineered Solutions President

Is your operation having trouble finding and keeping qualified workers? 
Are your order volumes increasing faster than you can keep up with?
Is the Customer Service department getting call after call about mis-shipments, wrong orders, or general dissatisfaction?

If these are things you are experiencing, it may be time to consider automation for your distribution and order fulfillment operation. Automation in a distribution and order fulfillment operation is becoming main-stream and companies - and individuals - are reaping the benefits financially and operationally. Technologies such as Goods-To-Person, Voice and Light Directed Picking, Put Walls, Automated Guided Carts and Vehicles, Warehouse Execution Software, Robotic Order Picking, Robotic Packaging, and Palletizing Cells have become common assets in a distribution and order fulfillment operations. The cost and capability to enter the Automation Arena continue to become more justifiable and the options in scale and flexibility can benefit most every size operation.

Voice and light-directed picking may be the easiest technology to implement and provide a quick return on investment. Voice and light can be put into an existing operation with little or no change to infrastructure to your existing operation. The benefits are gained from Increased Picking Efficiency, Reduced Picking Errors, and the ability to Interleave Tasks - making associated cross-functional.

Goods-to-person technologies capitalize on the concept that 80-90% of an order picker's time is spent traveling from task to task and from point to point in the operation. By bringing the tasks to the person, picking times can decrease to 30 - 50%, significantly improving operating efficiency. Some of the GTP technologies include Horizontal and Vertical Carousels, Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems, Pallet Runners, and Put Walls.

AGC's and AGV's Automated Guided Carts and Automated Guided Vehicles move parts, orders, and work through an operation. Like CONVEYOR, AGC's and AGV's allow workers to focus on the next task or operation rather than moving parts from point to point. These technologies take the operator out of simple tasks and allow them to focus on more skilled operations.

Warehouse Execution Software Similar to Voice and Light Directed Picking, Warehouse Execution Software (WES) may be implemented with little or no change to an operation's existing infrastructure. A WES will direct the flow of Work, Product, and People from Receiving through Order Picking, Packing, and Shipping. A WES will direct all of the work processes, inventory, and location details and order processes within the four walls of a Distribution and Order Fulfillment operation. The WES will communicate with the Host Business System to reconcile inventory and Orders. A WES will automate the decisions of workflow and ensure that associates are working as efficiently as possible while maintaining accurate and real-time information and data.

Robotics are making their way from the manufacturing environment to the Distribution and Order Fulfillment world. Robotic Palletizers have been used in facilities for many years, but their presence in the Distribution and Order Fulfillment arena has been scarce at best. Technology has now grown to the point that Robots can pick small parts, large cases, load and unload trailers - pretty much any function that can be performed by a person. As technologies advance, flexibility, and adaptation of robots in the Distribution and Order Fulfillment operation is a realistic option to consider.

As with any tool, technology, or device, selecting the right solution for the operation is paramount to success. Identifying and defining your business process and rules is a requirement before tackling the implementation of equipment and software. Working with a trusted Material Handling Systems Integrator will help ensure a successful endeavor into the world of Automation!