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The growth of online retail and the development of new technologies, such as vision-based systems, is set to change the face of picking. Lucy Tesseras casts an eye over the options.

The popularity of online retail has soared over the past two years as consumers become increasingly cost conscious and time restricted when it comes to shopping.

While other areas of retail have suffered during the recession online retail has boomed – and consumers have become increasingly savvy and demanding as a result, requiring next day, and some times even same day delivery, simple returns and cancellation processes, while still getting the best possible price.

With so much competition out there, any mistakes could be costly. In some cases meaning a consumer will totally disregard that retailer in future. Put simply, the right product needs to be delivered at the right time to the right place or it’s game over.

As such, distribution centres are becoming increasingly complex so the need to deploy the most efficient, accurate and speedy picking techniques is a must.
Mike Alibone, business development director at SSI Schaefer, reckons: “Companies need to think outside of their comfort zone if they want to succeed in today’s competitive online market and search for available proven concepts and opportunities to handle tomorrow’s picking challenges.”

When looking at the options the keywords that come up time and again are flexibility and scalability. Apart from the fact online retail businesses need to pick fewer items per order from a wider variety of SKUs, the fluctuation in demand is sizeable so variances in volumes need to be accommodated.

Edward Hutchinson of BITO says: “Picking systems need to adapt to the rapid growth that is part of the online retail story, – it’s not unheard of for retailers to be experiencing compound growth rates of 70 per cent. In a sector that demands accurate order fulfilment or risk losing customers, it is essential that order picking systems can be adapted to facilitate this growth.

“Carton flow racks, which offer a greater density of pick locations within a short distance for small parts and adjustable shelving are two suitable solutions for online retail order picking. Boltless versions of these systems can be quickly and easily configured or reconfigured when peaks or growth dictate.”

Sales spike
Richard Adams, northern region manager for Vocollect EMEA, says these seasonal demands have produced aggressive sales spikes that need to be managed from a resourcing and systems perspective.

“Picking system waves have needed to become more sophisticated to manage the pick in line with warehouse deliveries and time schedules. Moving the product out of the door has seen collaborative relationships with courier organisations to link the pick to transport routeing to gain reduced transport network costs. Therefore the picking rules within a WMS/ERP system need to be detailed and well thought out to maintain service levels, fill rates and more importantly accuracy and timeliness of the order to the end customer.”

Andrew Southgate of Zetes warns companies to implement picking technologies now so they don’t run the risk getting left behind. “The figures released after Christmas 2009 showed us just how much consumers are now buying online, and so, with demand being there, it’s a good time to adopt the right picking systems.
“Voice is an obvious choice here and it lends itself well to an e-commerce environment because of the speed and accuracy achievable, especially for multi-order picks. Even with a small number of pickers, as is the situation with many specialist e-commerce companies, the cost/benefit [ratio]for voice is still very high, making it an ideal option for e-commerce companies.

“Our work with Faber Music is a good illustration of a company that needed to adapt to e-commerce and traditional models. It needs to pick for both single item e-commerce orders and traditional retailer/distributor orders and has seen productivity quadruple after introducing voice.”

One of the key advantages of voice picking is it allows users to interact with the warehouse management system without interrupting physical work, as well as restructuring processes and reducing travel distances.

Anton du Preez, group sales director at VoiteQ, says: “Improving the efficiency of the pick, removing redundant processes or combining tasks into one process, such as ‘pick and pack’, will produce quantifiable savings. Improving the route or pick snake through the operation to optimise the tour of the warehouse is also a significant contributing factor to the return on investment. This is what Mamas & Papas achieved, using a pick and pack process in their clothing area, picking the items then placing them directly into the box or carton for dispatch.”

Chris Greenwood, IT director at Mamas & Papas, explains: “The implementation of VoiceMan middleware enabled us to test the benefits of voice technology during our peak Christmas period, but with minimal risk to the business. With middleware simply taking a feed from our existing systems, we did not require any alterations to be made to our core system but gained additional functionality.”

TopVOX’s topSPEECH-Lydia system is a hardware-independent voice product, designed for use with PDAs and speech-clients from various manufacturers. It features an open-standards architecture, allowing it to integrate with standard warehouse management systems, without the need for middleware.

Additionally, topSPEECH-Lydia offers speaker-independent speech recognition, which eliminates the need for new workers to train the system to their voices and reduces the amount of time it takes for the system to recognise the workers’ voices.

Dave Bull of Dematic argues that: “Goods-to-person picking (GTP) is currently the definitive picking mode in terms of speed and accuracy and offers the highest manual pick rates available – typically in the region of 600 to 800 pick lines per hour.”

Dematic’s Multi-Shuttle system facilitates high speed GTP picking. In principle, an operator remains positioned at a picking station to receive both order cartons and goods, which are bought to the picker at the same time by careful sequencing. Order cartons or totes are routed to the operator via a high speed conveyor system while the product is retrieved from a high speed storage buffer. From the feedback we have had, there is growing concern that the use of traditional products such as man-up combis and VNA turret trucks can compromise order picking efficiency and health and safety within warehouses where low level order picking takes place.

“Accuracy is achieved by presenting the operator with only one product and order carton at a time. Each carton will be uniquely identifiable and therefore the opportunity for placing the wrong product into the wrong order is eliminated.

“GTP picking is designed to complement other picking configurations and typically the medium and slow moving ‘tail’ of a customer’s stock profile will be positioned in the GTP area. Faster movers are often best kept in conventional carton live storage where [there are]already high pick rates.”

However, to give themselves the best chance of creating a cost-efficient picking process, Jungheinrich’s Steve Richmond says above all else “it is essential that companies choose the right blend of order picking strategies and techniques – regardless of whether the preferred solution is manual, automated mans-to-goods or goods-to-man”.

For conventional retailers who have incorporated online operations under the same roof, it means the same warehouse is now having to handle individual orders for direct customers, as well as their existing bulk item order for stores.

As a result, Chris Maynard, senior director of services at Manhattan Associates, says distributed order management systems have evolved to complement the traditional WMS by determining what inventory from which source should be used to fulfil a particular order.

He explains: “The distributed order management system will take a holistic view of network-wide inventory and will take into account a range of factors including least cost, best time, inventory positioning or optimisation of future orders before determining what inventory should be deployed and then picked.”

When incorporating orders for online into an existing set up, SSI Schaefer’s Mike Alibone advises warehouse operators to research picking systems that can easily integrate into current facilities and that are capable of managing an entire warehouse, parts of a warehouse or that can act as an upgrade to an existing pick-by-light system.

“The i-Pick system from SSI Schaefer, which consists of a touch-screen PC with pre-installed i-Pick software, will increase warehouse output levels by 300 per cent over standard picking systems and with no costly installation fees, it is the only pick-by-light product on the market that the customer can install without external support,” he claims.

Going forward, he thinks the future for picking systems lies in robotics. Schaefer has developed the Robo Pick, a fully automatic picking cell that can integrate into existing warehouse set-ups which has been designed to achieve up to 2,400 picks per hour.

Alibone explains: “The innovative two-step image processing system automatically recognises the position of products and controls the picking robot – therefore removing the need to enter individual product characteristics and features or to arrange products in a particular position.

“Such technology will not replace humans 100 per cent due to product handling limitations, however, as robotics becomes more widespread and less costly, this is likely to be the way forward in the future.”

Knapp is also looking to the future of picking – it is in the final testing stage of its vision-directed picking system, which it expects to launch before summer 2011.

KiSoft VISION guides pickers to each required pick location by superimposing arrow symbols that appear in a pair of lightweight glasses worn by the picker. Goods to be picked are optically highlighted while an integrated camera reads barcodes, lot numbers and serial numbers to confirm the pick without any further human intervention.

Even with more conventional picking systems, companies can reduce their logistics costs by focusing on returns and how to minimise them, says Knapp’s head of sales and marketing, Craig Rollason.

“Knapp has developed a solution that helps reduce the number of returns, as well as facilitating lot tracking and tracing. Traditionally, a small proportion of picked orders are routinely checked at integrated check stations. This has often just been by check weighing the total order, but with Knapp’s latest check stations, all items are automatically checked by 360-degree barcode reading. In the rare instance that an item’s barcode cannot be read, it is rejected to an operative who will check the barcode with a manual scanner.

“This solution means that the wrong goods or the wrong quantity simply cannot be shipped. The check stations also record the batch numbers of the goods dispatched. So, even if the goods have been picked using technology that does not read barcodes, such as A-frames or pick-to-light systems, the company will have a record of the lot or batch number of the goods that have been shipped.”

Knapp’s OSR Shuttle can also be used for handling returns. The company is now supplying its largest OSR Shuttle system to Hermes Fulfilment in Haldensleben, Germany, which will go live this autumn. The system features some 176,000 storage locations and will be the heart of a new automatic returns system, with a storage capacity of approximately one million products. The shuttle will supply 30 workstations on two levels and is designed to process up to 15,000 items per hour at peak times.

Getting back to basics, Rob Gibney, UK country manager of ICT Logistics Software, says: “The most important aspect is to have a system that makes it as easy as possible for the picker to carry out their task. A system that is simple and familiar will be intuitive, allowing the picker to concentrate on the key aspect of the job: getting the right product in the right quantity for the order. By helping to minimise thinking time for an order picker, a WMS can significantly speed picking operations.”

He adds that reporting functionality is also important as it shows “performance and trends, management can adapt picking operations to ensure they are keeping pace with demands. The reports will shine a light on how individual pickers are performing and trends in pick traffic. With this information the warehouse can be configured to ensure, for example, fast-moving SKUs are where they should be. It also allows pick routines to be adapted to minimise travel distances.”

Clive Fearn of The Barcode Warehouse agrees. “Put simply,” he says, “everything you want to do to improve the pick rate is dependent ultimately on the people doing the picking…Remember that up to 70 per cent of all warehouse costs revolve around the picking of goods so if you have convoluted processes you are wasting time, effort and an awful lot of money before you even consider the knock on effect to your customers.”

Safety in any warehouse is always of utmost importance, but at sites where ground level picking is carried out alongside picking at different heights accidents could happen.

John Maguire of Narrow Aisle Flexi says: “From the feedback we have had, there is growing concern that the use of traditional products such as man-up combis and VNA turret trucks can compromise order picking efficiency and health and safety within warehouses where low level order picking takes place.

“Man-up combi trucks present a particular risk because in its elevated position a man-up combi VNA truck might lift the operator ten metres in the air, but if you have someone in the same aisle order picking at ground level there is always the risk of the combi operator not seeing the order picker below.” As such he says the use of articulated trucks is becoming more popular – particularly among 3PLs.

John Lewis sees the light
John Lewis is now able to achieve up to 1,000 picks per man hour after implementing pick-to-light and put-to-light technology from Knapp.

The system was deployed as part of a £25 million automated handling installation at the department store’s 650,000 sq ft national distribution centre at Magna Park in Milton Keynes.

When designing the system, one of the biggest challenges Knapp had to overcome was the fact that store layout varies from branch to branch, as does which product lines belong in which department. Knapp also had to take into account the differing distribution needs of retail stores compared to online and catalogue activity.

The project, which is Knapp’s largest single order in the UK to date, features 8.4km of conveyors and more than a quarter of a million bin storage locations. It includes 13 ASRS cranes, each running in aisles of 78m long by 15m high, which handle slower moving products in totes that are stored double deep. Faster moving goods are stored in 21,000 totes on Knapp’s OSR Shuttle system, with both lines being fed to one of 33 order picking stations.

A second OSR Shuttle system has been installed to act as a buffer store which collates picked totes for delivery to John Lewis’ 29 stores, while a third shuttle was supplied to fulfil online and catalogue orders.

The Magna Park site was designed to meet direct-to-customer orders of up to £300 million per year, but the Knapp system has enabled it to handle £500 million of sales.

Knapp has also helped to reduce surplus stock through its warehouse management software which allows product sales to be reviewed more often.

Dematic helps JD Williams to speak easy
Catalogue giant JD Williams has gone live with Dematic’s pick-to-voice system at its Shaw site near Oldham, which is expected to reduce pick errors by 65 per cent.

JD Williams operates more than 20 catalogue brands, including Oxendales, Ambrose Wilson and Shapely Figures, which offer a range of clothing and other products. The company’s transport and logistics division, Fulfilment Logistics, operates two main sites totalling 1.5 million sq ft.

The Shaw facility occupies 500,000 sq ft across two buildings both with four floors which are joined by a bridge.

Items are picked on all eight floors and put on a sortation machine for onward delivery.

The label-based picking system used previously has been retained as it is vital for sorter identification, but pickers are now directed to the pick location by voice. Upon arrival at their destination they are required to verbally verify unique check digits on the item being picked.

Dematic has implemented a Vocollect system incorporating Talkman hardware and customised VoiceLink software which interfaces with the JD Williams mainframe system.

It has also introduced its own software which splits picks into manageable assignments and a dashboard providing screen-based reporting of the whole pick operation.

 Picking boost
 Home textile supplier Welspun has improved stock control and order picking performance at its Manchester facility following the introduction of Chess Logistics Technology’s Empirica warehouse management application with RF-based barcode scanning.
The company produces towels, linen and soft furnishing products under a number of brands including Christy. It relocated to a new 150,000 sq ft distribution centre in Openshaw, Manchester, which compared to its previous low bay storage warehouse was fitted with racking up to eight metres high, providing 5,000 bulk bin locations and 5,000 pick face points.

Welspun opted to run with its legacy systems initially, but recognised that adopting a more advanced WMS would provide a number of business and operational benefits in the longer term.

Empirica is designed to deliver real-time control and visibility of stock management, goods in, order picking and other key warehousing processes.

Chess managed the overall deployment, selected the hardware partner for the RF equipment, transferred data from the old system and integrated the application with Welspun’s Texpro software.

Since implementation, stock accuracy has improved from around 94 per cent to over 99 per cent, which has led to an improvement in overall efficiency in the warehouse and stock takes have been reduced from two to one a year.

Empirica also provides performance information, including metrics showing individual operatives’ pick rates allowing managers to identify areas where underlying issues may offer opportunities for process improvements such as changing the layout of the pick faces to optimise pick-paths.

The business currently picks around 2,000 orders a month with a total of 500,000 items.

Alliance picks the right remedy
Alliance Healthcare has increased efficiency at its Exeter distribution centre after installing BITO’s Carton Live Storage (CLS) system which locates product nearer to where it needs to be picked.

The system has been built around the picking conveyor loop for manual picking and a new A-Frame picker which was installed by Knapp when the company moved to the 56,000 sq ft facility in January.

Alliance Healthcare’s Exeter Service Centre supplies some 9,500 medical product lines to pharmacies, hospitals and dispensing doctors throughout the South West.

The picking process begins when the company’s standalone, company-wide order and delivery system releases orders for picking.

It instantly selects the appropriate size tote which is barcoded so the system can track it as it passes the readers and directs it to the required location for the items on each order. Once dispatched onto the transport conveyor the order’s tote goes first to the A-Frame, a unit that comprises rows of dispensing channels holding vertical stacks of the fastest moving products. Products are ejected from the automated system into waiting totes as they are required.

Around 70 per cent of picking takes place on the A-Frame, with remaining products being picked manually.

Orders requiring products from the A-Frame only are taken directly to dispatch. If other items are required for the order, the tote continues to the two manual picking areas which comprise one aisle for medium speed goods where products are picked directly from the CLS and another aisle for slower goods where products are picked from both the CLS and shelving.

When a tote arrives on the transport conveyor it gets pushed off at the right station onto the picking conveyor which runs beneath the CLS pick face on one side of each of these aisles.

The picker scans the bin with a wrist-mounted scanner and the pick information is displayed on the scanner’s LCD screen to allow quick and accurate location of the correct product on the flow shelves.

Once picked the tote is scanned again to let the system know the pick is finished at that location.

It goes back to the transport conveyor and continues to the next station. Once the order is complete it goes to dispatch where it is put on the required delivery vehicle.

The density of storage provided by the CLS allows products in the manual pick areas to be close to hand and each person picks only within a small area, avoiding long, time-consuming walks.

In the previous facility the manual process used to take up to five minutes as stock was stored in ten rows of conventional racking, each about 30m long. It now takes seconds.

Carousel speeds up shoe fulfilment
US-based online retailer Zappos.com needed to find a way of controlling costs at its distribution centres while still fulfilling tens of thousands of orders a day.

The retailer currently stocks more than three million shoes, handbags, clothing items and accessories from over 1,136 brands at its facilities, which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to meet customer demand.

System Logistics designed an integrated order fulfilment system that includes what it claims is the largest horizontal carousel system ever built, when measured in cubic feet of storage space.

The system is made up of 120 carousels, each with 6,300 cubic feet, a total of 756,000 cubic feet.

It will allow the retailer to control fulfilment costs in a direct-to-customer environment as it will reduce the cost per unit shipped and will allow the retailer to react to increasing volumes without increasing the cost of fulfilment.

It has been estimated that the cost per cubic foot of storage will be reduced by 40 per cent, which lowers the cost per unit shipped and improves return on investment.

Speak your mind
McCulla Ireland, which specialises in temperature-controlled logistics for the food industry, has become Irelands’s first food service distribution specialist to implement voice-directed picking across three temperature zones with Zetes.

The company has deployed Zetes’ 3iV Crystal voice-directed work software in conjunction with Vocollect’s Talkman T5 voice computers – VoiceClient and VoiceConsole.

The distributor serves clients across Ireland including McNeil Nutritional, Benecol Ireland, Johnson & Johnson and Dale Farms. Picking processes had previously been operated using hand-held terminals, but the company required a system that allowed it the flexibility to tailor pick processes in line with each client’s individual costing and billing operations.

Managing director Ashley McCulla says: “Putting in voice enabled us to increase our KPIs and efficiencies to customers by getting more things right first time, which strengthens loyalty and satisfaction, but also reduces our cost base and improves profitability.”

McCulla expects to improve picking and dispatch accuracy levels to beyond 99.5 per cent, as well as reducing the number of man hours required to complete stock counts, as the need for bi-weekly stock counts will be eliminated. Instead the company will operate a perpetual inventory management system.

Slim pickings
Diet Chef, the UK-based diet home delivery company, enlisted Gideon Hillman Consulting to redesign its warehouse and order picking operations to help it better manage the volume of throughputs and pick to short order lead times.

The key focus was on developing a leaner picking operation through reducing order pick times, picker travel distances and increasing throughput capabilities without increasing man hours unnecessarily.

The consultant team redesigned the replenishment warehouse and picking/packing facilities to include the most efficient product range and pick face locations.

It also provided computer-generated drawings of the new design illustrating rack and equipment layouts and defined work areas, and a full bill of the equipment needed for racking and materials handling equipment suppliers to quote against.

A set of standard operating procedures were provided for all aspects of the operation, including the adjacent bulk storage warehouse, as well as break down and replenishment, picking and packing operations and an operational resource plan to ensure the cost per item picked is minimised once the new layout design has been implemented.

Scale CAD drawings showing rack and equipment layouts and defined work areas were also provided.

Got to pick a product or two
Vanderlande has installed a new order fulfilment system for a food retailer in Leipzig, Germany, designed for smaller, slow-moving products.

The system, which comprises a pallet ASRS for bulk storage and replenishment with a miniload ASRS for tote storage and goods-to-man picking, has improved accuracy and order picking performance and increased repacking speed.

One of the objectives of the project was to manage storage and order fulfilment for up to 8,000 different product families within a floor area of around 80,730 sq ft, without sacrificing floor space.

The ASRS for pallets now handles replenishment processes. Notified deliveries of goods are checked and recorded in the goods receiving area and single product pallets are labelled and loaded onto the conveyor system and stored in one of 2,052 pallet locations in the two-aisle ASRS for pallets. Those that don’t comply with the size restrictions are diverted to a manual repacking area.

Twelve pallet lifts are supplied on demand with pallets by transfer cars. The lifts raise the pallets up to platform level through a shaft and the contents of the pallets are presented at an ergonomic height to the operators on the platform who remove the specified number of items and places them into product totes.

After the product totes are filled up, they move on to the 20-aisle miniload ASRS storage system. The totes are retrieved from the storage system on an individual order basis and transported to the order picking workstations, which each have two sequencers for buffering.

The system can sort goods into up to 16 product families, as well as subsequently sorting the individual items by weight, putting heavy goods before light. More than 320 items can be picked per hour.

Product totes are then transported to workstations in a predefined sequence and the picker takes the number of items needed and places them in the order tote, which can be stacked three high in the delivery truck – two stacks have the same footprint as a Euro pallet creating additional space savings.

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