All change at the pick face

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Your picking operation might be well established and deliver good results, but is it in danger of being left behind as markets change and best practice is ratcheted up a notch? Malory Davies reports.

Markets are changing, technology is moving and that means that companies are increasingly having to look at how they organise their picking processes to stay competitive.

The changes are highlighted by Tim Williams, BCP distribution divisional director, who says: “Improvements have come from the introduction of technologies like voice, pick to light and RF scanning, all of which deliver speed, accuracy and cost benefits of differing levels compared with traditional paper-based picking – plus, to a greater or lesser extent, real-time management of the pick face.”

All these technologies deliver high accuracy levels, he says, with voice having a bit of an edge. “But with productivity, it depends on the nature of the business and the products being handled.

“For small items, pick-to-light can provide significant productivity advantages because the picker can see simultaneously all the items to be picked, rather than following sequential instructions. Usually, the picker will be stationary, picking from a relatively small area into containers on a conveyor system.

“However, pick-to-light isn’t suitable for picking by case or picking a range of products that differ in size and weight. Here you need voice or RF Scanning. Moreover, wireless connection is ideal for areas that are difficult to wire or for users who need the flexibility to move equipment around a lot. Pick-to-light is also the most inflexible system in terms of interacting with the WMS to manage anomalies while voice is the best as the user can assess and interpret the situation at the picking location and report back so that rapid corrective action can be taken if necessary.

“Over and above this, pick-to-light is essentially a picking technology whereas RF scanning and voice can be used across all warehouse activities – and there’s an increasing trend in that direction – that is a movement away from just bolting on middleware picking systems and moving instead to fully integrated wall-to-wall WMS to deliver voice control and its benefits across all warehouse operations – or as and where desired,” says Tim Williams.

Andy De’Vere, managing director of shared user operations at NFT, highlights the fact that warehouse management systems providers are developing more innovation in terms of picking optimisation, plus the flexibility offered in Vanilla systems is now more robust than in recent years.

“In our experience, relocate optimiser functionality has helped NFT deliver over 2.2m cases throughput from 220,000 sq ft of space; never before seen in a chilled fast moving environment. The development has seen major benefits in not having any pick faces, instead working on the principle of dynamic filling with a twist. It allows daily optimisation of picking and increases accuracy across the order cycle.”

Voice technology has been a game-changer for many, and Darrel Williams, Vocollect’s regional director Northern Europe and South Africa, says: “While technologies such as pick-by-light or full warehouse automation are well suited to operations characterised to consistent demand, low SKU churn and only minor fluctuations in picking patterns, voice continues to match performance in even these ‘specialist’ areas.”

He argues that voice presents a more flexible and scalable solution for the dynamic logistics environment as workers using voice are multi-skilled and can be deployed in response to the real time needs of the supply chain.

“This labour management option ensures that  seasonal peaks are normally addressed without having to build in spare capacity and you will never be limited by the constraints of a chosen technology,” says Darrel Williams.

“These challenges are amplified in the case of third-party logistics businesses where contract lengths are short and, as a result, the need to add value is pressing. To meet these requirements, 3PLs need to innovate and find new ways of providing sustainable cost-effective solutions – but they need to do it fast. Consequently, many are now looking to voice to deliver the disruptive technology change their customers are demanding.”

The growth of online and multi-channel retail is having an impact on picking choices. De’Vere says: “Online and multi-channel retail has to take a high priority in how to invest, and in most cases bespoke systems are currently the only way. This is mainly due to the demand and potential diversity in products and where it serves the market.”

Steve Richmond, director of Jungheinrich’s systems & projects division, says: “Increasingly we are seeing existing organisations having to fulfil multi-channel distribution from the same facility. This means that a wide variety of handling methodologies and order picking techniques must be employed side by side in an efficient manner.”

And, says BCP’s Tim Williams, “companies have to factor in the need to manage a lot of smaller picks, less consolidation of orders and, very importantly, the need to be able to cope with a lot more returns. The need for seamless real-time operations and visibility right across the operation becomes ever more important to successful fulfilment and customer satisfaction.”

The importance of inventory accuracy and fulfilment accuracy is highlighted by Darrel Williams. “Voice-directed pickers wear head-sets, leaving eyes and hands free. They are fed instructions, which are automatically sequenced into the most efficient order – one simple command at a time – from the WMS. The picker confirms each step/instruction in real time, by reading back digits or other elements of an item code.”

Outside the warehouse

Voice technology is now moving outside the warehouse and is being used in parcel handling, postal letter sortation, quality inspection and vehicle checking  activities, he says.

BCP’s Tim Williams points out that integrating a picking solution – whether it be voice, RF or pick to light – into the WMS is not as easy as it is often represented. “I believe this underlines the movement towards tightly integrated voice WMS rather than bolting middleware solutions into existing WMS. It’s less risky, much more robust and delivers more functionality.”

Of course, there are innovations becoming available that can improve picking performance. Andy De’Vere highlights the fact that voice is evolving and can produce some benefit. “Linking order profiles to dynamic pick face layouts and improved flexible racking design is something we are looking into. I further believe that current RF technology will become more robust and also smaller, allowing operators more freedom to simply confirm with one touch screen innovation.”

Voice systems are being improved with advanced headsets that deliver superior voice recognition performance being rolled out today, says Vocollect’s Darrel Williams. In addition, he says: “Today we see the launch of the first voice – centric wearable devices with integrated technologies such as scanning. Now an optimised voice process is enhanced by ‘hands- free’ scanning for those occasions/products where scanning is simply the most suitable technology, without the need for costly third party bolt-ons.”

BCP’s Tim Williams notes a trend towards increasingly sophisticated statistics and reporting from systems to help manage the warehouse work force more effectively.

Developments in truck technology can also play a part, says Richmond. “These days automated VNA trucks can be almost completely based on a standard truck which is fitted with an ‘automation package’.

“Today we can start with a standard VNA truck with wire guidance and transponder technology and, by introducing additional sensors for profile checking, centring and various other safety-related functions, adding a bus bar and automation controls for the truck’s sensors and fitting an interface to the warehouse management system – the truck becomes fully automated.”

Case study: Lidl expands with Schaefer case picking

Food retailer Lidl has expanded its logistics centre at Kirchheim unter Teck near Stuttgart in southern Germany with an automated picking system from SSI Schaefer.

In addition to a case picking system, Schaefer includes a high bay racking system with five aisles and around 15,000 pallet storage spaces, plus a Schaefer Tray System with 16,000 storage positions on five storage levels.

The greatest challenges in implementing this were the very high requirements on pallet composition and the handling of packages.

The system now guarantees optimally packed pallets for transporting and then unloading goods at the store. In addition, the implementation of this modular, scalable total solution can be extended virtually without limit.

Costs: Calculating savings in order picking

What can you save by moving to a new order picking system? Mike Ranger, business consultant at Zetes, gives the following example:
 “A warehouse using paper based picking processes records that, on average, a warehouse operative picks 60 lines per hour. Introducing voice into the warehouse would deliver savings to all 3 elements of the picking process:
– The start process – saves 45 seconds
– The repetitive pick process – saves 5 seconds per line
– The end process – saves 45 seconds
Multiply these savings up to an average order of 60 lines to see an efficiency gain of 10.8 per cent (45+(5*60)+45 sec).

Compared to this, to a typical example of a distribution centre, where hand-held terminals are in use with the same metrics, would deliver savings as follows:
– The start process – 5 seconds
– The repetitive pick process – saves 6 seconds per line
– The end process – saves 5 seconds
Multiplying these savings up to an average order of 60 lines would equate to an efficiency gain of 10.3 per cent (5+(6*60)+5).

So working on the basis that based on efficiency alone 10-11 per cent is typically achieved whether paper or hand-held terminal picking the cost saving can be quite dramatic.
Example of costs:
– A DC ships 250,000 picked lines per week using voice
– 4,167 start processes = 52 hours per week
– 250,000 repetitive pick tasks = 347 hours per week
– 4,167 end processes = 52 hours per week
– Total saving per week of 451 hours * 52 weeks * £7.50 = £175,890 per annum
– A DC ships 250,000 picked lines per week using hand-held terminals:
– 4,167 start processes = 6 hours a week
– 250,000 repetitive pick tasks = 417 hours per week
– 4,167 end processes = 6 hours per week
– Total saving per week = 429 hours * 52 weeks * £7.50 = £166,140 per annum.

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