Slick order picking is a prerequisite for any distribution business looking to distance itself from its competitors. And having the right warehouse equipment is key to guaranteeing operations remain streamlined.
Order picker truck technologies are advancing fast to keep pace with market changes. A host of redesigns have hit the market this year, with manufacturers such as Hyster, Mitsubishi, Jungheinrich and Cat all adding new models to their line-ups.
Consumer demand is such that orders consist of smaller quantities of varied product lines, rather than full pallet loads of the same product. As a result, manufacturers are designing trucks which can adapt better to single item picking.
Andy Collier, product manager for order pickers at Toyota, says: “Attractive discounting and cost-conscious gift hunters have made 2008 the biggest Christmas ever for the percentage of online purchases.” As a result Toyota has seen more operations than ever operating sub-bulk picking systems.
“With more stations visited and more lines picked per journey, operators may need to get on and off the truck more frequently,” he says. The BT Opus range of low level order pickers has been designed with this in mind.
The truck is operated by a steering tiller with Toyota’s E-man steering system, which can be re-positioned to the left or right-hand side of the truck. The driver can then guide the truck while walking alongside it, rather than having to get on and off to move short distances between picking stations.
A reduced steering arc and self-straightening steering also help protect the driver when dismounting and walking with the truck. Creep control buttons are mounted on the backrest, reducing the distance the driver has to travel to move the truck forwards.
To manage the increase of line items in warehouses, more pick faces are needed. Mike Hawkins, Linde’s warehouse systems and project sales manager, reckons this has led to more second-level pick locations in warehouses, in turn increasing the demand for second-level pickers. Linde has upped its second-level range to meet this, and now boasts seven models. Picking long loads is an art and, according to Hubtex, on the continent many companies handling long loads now use purpose-built two man picking platforms. This allows two men to go direct to the pick face to heights of up to ten metres. Orders are then picked directly onto the platform, either onto a pallet or into a purpose-built stillage. The picked order is then taken to floor level and off-loaded by a conventional fork truck and the process for the next order can start again. Hubtex reckons that handling worktops in this way has saved one UK customer 75 per cent in damage costs.
You’ll be hard pushed to find a warehouse operation that doesn’t use some form of electronic device such as scanners or hand-held computers, to help manage increasingly complex pick runs. Warehouse management systems are part of the furniture for many warehouse operators, and now voice technology and RFID are catching up.
As a result, trucks that synchronise with these technologies are coming into play more. Jungheinrich’s latest order picker/stacker, the EKX 513-515 Kombi, features technology that enables it to communicate independently with the WMS. The company says this system can generate productivity savings of 15 per cent via intelligent lifting and travel functions.
The VNA truck receives order picking instructions from the WMS. RFID transponders set in the floor then automatically guide the truck to the appropriate pallet position within the racking by the shortest route, at the optimum speed that consumes the lowest amount of energy.
The truck also uses RFID to automatically adjust its speed, telling it to slow down when it reaches the end of an aisle or when carrying sensitive goods. RFID transponders tell the truck to reduce its speed in aisles where the floor quality is poor, while allowing them to work at a higher speed in aisles where the floors are good.
Doug Wyatt, operations manager, Nissan Forklift, says ergonomics and ease of use are the main development drivers for order pickers. “The operator is generally performing a high degree of manual work and operator fatigue will affect both safety and productivity. The easier the truck to operate, the more alert the actual operator,” he says.
Nissan’s PP range of low-level order pickers features a friction force suspension system as part of the overall Risk Reduction system. This ensures the truck’s drive wheel maintains constant optimum pressure on the ground for smooth running and maximum grip.
The series has been designed to manoeuvre well in tight picking aisles, with load handling up to 2500kgs. The range has been designed to cater for the growing variety of order picking operations in modern distribution and manufacturing warehouses, where the need is increasingly for highly intensive and often 24-hour a day working.
Collier points to seasonal peaks as being a time when the simplicity of the truck is particularly important. “The Christmas and New Year period is a very busy time for Toyota’s short-term rental department, with hundreds of order picking trucks being rented to support seasonal peak requirements.
“These trucks are often operated by temporary staff, who do not always have the experience of the permanent team, so features that make trucks easy and safe are key to supplier choice.”
Andrea Lucci, general manager for warehouse equipment at Yale, points to technologies such as fly-by-wire scooter control, which reduces steering effort, as being an important technology advancement.
Yale’s latest safety features on medium and high-level order pickers include a radar/laser system that checks whether there are people or obstacles, and a lift meter which reduces the truck speed automatically depending on the cabin height.
Regardless of how sophisticated the safety features are, there’s only so much the truck can protect against lax operator habits. Drivers have been known to leapfrog certain safety features so as to speed up an operation, for example, taping over sensors that are designed to ensure their hands are in the safest position.
Manufacturers such as Hyster have come up with new ways to block this particular temptation. Robert O’Donoghue, general manager, warehouse products EMEA for Hyster, says its trucks now feature a system which checks when something has been stuck over the sensor. That way, if a driver covers them up, once he switches the truck off, he won’t be able to turn it back on if the sensors have been tampered with.
Emphasis will be on added value in the coming months, as manufacturers look at ways to help ease the strain on customers’ businesses. O’Donoghue says Hyster’s strategy will centre on added value products such as its warehouse simulator.
This has been designed to help customers determine what type of truck best suits their application. It does this by providing a 3D simulation of a company’s warehouse and logistics operation. Data such as normal arrival and dispatch patterns, estimations of the estimated number of pallet loads are input into the software, along with details of warehouse size, racking dimensions.