Pressure peak for picking promise

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The pressure has never been greater for companies to choose the right picking systems and make sure they deliver the return on investment.

The 2012 Christmas peak is well under way, and many supply chain directors will be watching with bated breath, hoping that new systems deliver the goods as well as substantial cost savings.

With reports that ROI requirements are being reined in from three or four years to just 18 months, the pressure has never been greater for supply chain directors to choose the right system, and to make sure it pays, fast.

Finding the right solution will always depend on the individual business. Bruce Stubbs of Intermec, says: “The key differences include the capture of critical data at time of picking such as code date, lot number, serial number, catch weight, pharmaceutical codes, style, size and colour.

“This is gained through a number of different picking methods – case pick, each pick, pallet pick, discrete pick, batch pick, pick and pass, zone picking and so on. For each of these, different technologies may be required.”

And beyond the product profile, the different approaches to picking must fit with the extra requirements of each business, such as customer and distribution requirements, as well as overriding factors such as the economy, and unemployment rates in the UK.

“Although there are indications that with the increasing availability of labour the use of manual systems is likely to increase. Low interest rates may also serve to aid high capital schemes being built,” says Jon Porter of Total Logistics.

The economy certainly doesn’t seem to be constraining automation investments. Knapp saw record turnover of some £264 million, and orders worth some £343 million, in the year ending March 2012.

Chief executive Gerald Hofer, says that the main growth areas in the UK are pharmaceuticals, retail, fashion and grocery. In particular he points to general retail as the fastest growing and most advanced market in the UK. “The UK is worldwide one of our top three markets, it makes the pace for us in certain aspects.”

In some cases, even the general socio-economic factors are turned on their head. In distribution hotspots in the Midlands for example, unemployment barely exists. And employers are increasingly minded to work staff incentives – such as cafeterias and gyms – into warehouse design to attract and retain a reliable workforce.

For growing operations a scaleable solution is often key. Savoye’s new modular conveyor system can be moved and expanded on an ad hoc basis, with electric control cards governing each independent segment via an interface to the WCS. This effectively makes the conveyor itself a picking tool, as it can stop, accelerate or redirect goods in response to changing order schedules or traffic elsewhere on the conveyor. Its electrical design also allows rapid installation, reduces energy consumption and noise compared to compressed gas systems. The adaptability of this light loads system makes it particularly suited to firms exploring or developing e-commerce offerings.

“Multi-channel retail dictates the need for lots of stock-keeping units, wide profiles, small, well-packed orders, speedy order processing and accurate picking. This means that picking solutions with lots of accessible pick faces, short pick paths, not much replenishment and a short process from storage to packing with minimal handling in between are needed. Voice and traditional wide aisle, low level order picking is not suitable when picking for multi-channel orders,” says Porter.

However many cite voice picking as a scalable solution for consolidating channels. “Compared to pick-by-light or full warehouse automation systems, voice-directed technology is far more flexible and mobile,” says Richard Adams of Vocollect.
“There is also very little work required to set up a voice infrastructure. All that is needed is a wireless network so it is easy for customers to move quickly on to voice or expand an existing voice installation.

“JD Williams’ transport and warehousing division quickly and effectively implemented voice-technology for their 500,000 sq ft facility that occupies two mid-19th century mills with four floors, joined by a bridge.”

Phil Steeds of TGW also points out the benefits of the multiple languages that most voice systems are equipped with. “Voice tools can be tailored to ensure individual operators receive spoken picking directions in their local language to minimise potential confusion and inaccuracies.”

Currently, a major concern for warehousing operations looking to expand, is finding the space. The supply of new high quality industrial property is running dry, so optimising operational footprints is the order of the day.

Automation will always be a popular choice for maximising use of warehouse space. Marks & Spencer’s new behemoth automation installation at its 900,000 sq ft Castle Donington facility includes a 25 metre high “miniload” storage system from SSI Schaefer, and can pick 600 items per hour. This kind of setup represents unrivalled storage density, and Darrel Stein, director of IT and logistics, says it allows M&S to move from working across 110 warehouses to just four DCs.

For many, the lack of available industrial property will mean making do with second hand warehouse space. And this complicates large scale installations.

“Most automated picking technologies can be designed and configured to fit within the footprint of a second hand warehouse. However before any installation takes place it is important to consider the height of the building and assess the quality and condition of the floor for flatness and load bearing capability,” says Steeds.

Porter says: “You should bear in mind that the speed with which an installation can take place is vital in ensuring that disused or inefficient warehouse space is brought back into operation quickly.

“Picking solutions not requiring specific installation are most suited for second hand warehouse space, but the fact that installing high bay, conveyors or crane systems would be challenging in a second-hand warehouse space needs to be taken into account when planning how to optimise the space.”

Knapp has a low-footprint conveyor option for lower throughput operations, its Open Shuttle system. This is the rather amusing free-roaming robot that resembles certain sci-fi characters. The laser guided mini-AGVs  recognise and go around obstructions and can be programmed to ask “human obstructions” to move out of the way, before deferring to another route.

They handle cartons or containers for transport as well as picking tasks, and are suited to just-in-time environments such as automotive production – or in processes where tracking of material is important, such as in the pharmaceutical industry.

Knapp also has a new Pick-It-Easy robot for saving space and boosting throughput. It is a high volume individual item picker that uses a multi-axis picking head with image recognition to identify the easiest item to pick among randomly oriented articles in a tote, based on the amount of accessible surface area.

It makes some 2,500 picks per hour and is foreseen as a supplement to manual picking operations, to cope with peaks and the less attractive aspects of picking “Its not the nicest job to be picking at 2am every night,” says Hofer.

Hofer says that high volume picking tools such as the Pick-It-Easy robot and Knapp’s roll-cage loading stations are primarily motivated by pharmaceutical and grocery sectors. Most agree that grocery is the driving force behind developments in automation, especially in the light of growing online businesses.

There is already pressure on the big UK grocers to differentiate their online offerings. And there is speculation that this differentiation will take the form of more complex and tailored items, such as variable portions from deli counters, which will of course demand ever more complex picking systems.

Hofer anticipates that there will be more developments in automating picking fresh produce in crates. However he is less convinced about individual item picks, which he reckons will always be an unattractive proposition for mechanisation because of the irregularity and delicate nature of items.

David James of Knapp says: “The best picking tool is the human, so it’s about making them more comfortable and efficient and reliable.”

With the diversity of channels and services being foisted by retailers onto their distribution partners, it seems the diversity of picking technology available is the key to success. Operators can chose the best picking method for each individual aspect of their operations. Whether its a modular addition or a wholesale investment in a new system, there is no need to bet it all on one picking route.

Case study- Inside the new Marks & Spencer e-commerce centre

Marks & Spencer is poised to open the largest fully automated multi-channel distribution centre in the UK, as part of an investment worth some tens of millions of pounds in updating its network.

The 900,000 sq ft site at Castle Donington will store some 150,000 different product lines, process a million products per day at peak, and could potentially hold 2,392 billion of its Percy Pig sweets.

The facility is due to go live in April 2013, and will house the retailer’s global e-commerce operations as well as dealing with orders going to its 600 stores via regional DCs. It will handle everything except food, and some larger items such as furniture.

It is split into three chambers, for boxed products, pick and pack operations, and storage for some four million garments, respectively. The boxed storage and pick to light systems were delivered by SSI Schaefer, while the hanging garment storage is from PSB Intralogistics, and garment picking is from Knapp owned Durkopp Fördertechnik.

The WMS is supplied by RedPrairie. Darrell Stein, director of IT and logistics at M&S, says the retailer had a policy to put in as many elements that had already been trialled in the business elsewhere.

The 25 metre high crane operated boxed product storage area takes goods direct from some 15,000 suppliers. It has 70 loading doors, with more available if required. There are currently spaces for 11,000 pallets, with room for expansion into an extra aisle.

Chamber two houses pick and pack operations. There are 26 work stations to decant product into totes for the mini sorter which houses 136,000 tote boxes, and some 14 million products.  Then there are 108 carousels delivering totes to 36 picking stations. 

Chamber three houses around six million hanging garments on some 1.5m sq ft of mezzanine across four floors. The top two floors have hanging carousels handling a million items before being directed to a cascading sorter on the third floor which automatically picks store orders in any given configuration using RFID.

There is a buffer storage area for picked boxed items to await the slightly slower hanging garment sortation, so that mixed orders of both types of product are delivered to packing stations at once.

M&S estimates that the automated site will process some 1,000 orders per hour, in comparison to the 150 it was achieving in manual pick facilities.

Tony Burnleigh, head of logistics, says the electricity bill will come to several million pounds per year, but that the environmental safeguards built into the site, such as double skinned walls, movement activated lighting, and a massive solar panel wall which it reckons is the biggest in Europe, means wastage is at a bare minimum. Not to mention the savings from rationalising some hundred warehouses to just four.

Case study- Never knowingly under-automated

When the John Lewis Partnership analysed its distribution network, it found many millions of pounds worth of excess inventory. So it revised its network model to reduce this, and to accommodate its growing multi-channel operations.

The retailer initially called in Knapp to improve service and availability while reducing costs in 2006. Knapp was then was commissioned to expand the operation, particularly for the e-commerce business, with an investment of £13 million which went live in 2011.

The 830,000 sq ft warehouse is 15m high and houses some 350,000 SKUs. It has 37 pick-to-light stations, 26 RF stations, and system guided decanting and packing on 52, and 60 workstations respectively. There is 8.8km of conveyor and 228 OSR Shuttles.

The automated system handles products for store orders and the e-commerce channel at the same time in the goods-in and de-trashing areas.

On arrival each product is assigned either to the pallet storage area for overstock, or to the automated container storage and goods-to-man picking system, which stores some 287,860 containers.

Goods for container storage are scanned and their details and bar-codes logged before they are move into the 13 aisle Smart-Storage-System with stacker cranes and 16 aisles for the OSR Shuttle system.

The retrieval of storage containers and their transport to the work stations is determined by a flexible batch algorithm in which the number of times each container must be manipulated is reduced to a minimum.

The 30 B2B goods-to-person pick-to-light stations process 12 shop orders at once.
All shop orders are automatically transported to an eight aisle OSR Shuttle that functions as a dispatch buffer and has 10,816 storage locations.

This central part of the system achieves 8,150 container movements per hour and a picking performance of more than 20,000 items per hour in peak times.

The e-commerce picking area also includes an OSR Shuttle, a semi-automatic storage and picking system for the slow and medium-moving products from the B2C area, and conveyor loops with flow racks, where picking is carried out using RF terminals.

As part of the 2011 extension, a new OSR Shuttle was erected with four aisles of double-depth storage for containers up to 35 kg for the B2C area. Additionally, the existing two-aisle OSR Shuttle was expanded to include four aisles; a third conveyor loop was added to the two existing loops, and the 18 manual picking stations were increased to 26.

The entire logistics system has a modular design and can be easily expanded. The logistics hub now has increased capacity to support the John Lewis Partnership’s planned growth and opening of new stores. It has also reduced stock and overstock, and streamlined it multi-channel operations.

John Lewis reports 99.84 per cent pick accuracy, with a peak week throughput of some 5.6 million units. The retailer is planning further projects with Knapp to go live for Christmas 2014.

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