A picky process…

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As ever, picking operations are being driven to do more, faster. But the difficulty is in managing the new types of order, says Johanna Parsons.

On top of taking orders from stores and now computers and mobile phones 24 hours a day, warehouses also have to fulfil them all seamlessly. That means picking huge numbers of small orders, and in such a way as to assist or improve vehicle loading, delivery planning, store layout and returns.

There are as many strategies and technologies for this as there are businesses. The challenge is to get the balance right. Emile Naus, partner and technical director at LCP Consulting, says: “Most retailers started with a simple picking process, treating home deliveries as a store and therefore picking it like a store with a secondary pick/sort to customer level. Best practice is to pick customer orders as well as store orders, from a single inventory pot, to maximise availability.”

Jeffrey Verbenne, of Zetes contends that: “You need to bundle the e-commerce orders to combine many picks and shorten the distances involved – this is known as wave picking. Greater accuracy is needed because you cannot afford to make any mistakes with customer orders.”

And Alex Mills of Chess says: “Modern WMS should support simultaneous picking of multiple orders for different customers across a variety of handling media. In this way operatives are more productive and spend proportionately more time at the pick face.”

This is vital as e-retail encourages ever more SKUs. Snapfulfil’s Gavin Clark points out that order pickers typically spend about 60 per cent of their time walking and moving product around the warehouse. And that’s a powerful argument for using machines. Not necessarily to replace picking staff, but in some cases to deliver items to the picker, mitigating the sheer scale of storage facilities.

And Naus adds that picking for multiple channels at once adds complexity and is another factor that “drives to a relatively high level of automation.”

For example, SSI Schaefer’s new LogiMat is designed to offer fast and space-saving goods-to-man picking. DHL recently set up a highly automated dispatch warehouse for the home shopping station HSE24 with a 21,000 sq m order picking area on three levels, developed by SSI Schaeffer. 20-40 thousand packages are dispatched each day, primarily one item orders. The firm says the new system has set a new milestone for speed, and flexibility.

And SDI Group has a new hanging pouch sortation system, called the MonaLisa, which handles hanging items and flat goods simultaneously, for both order picks.

Grocery chain Spar enlisted Witron for a major logistics expansion, with the latest phase based around a massive automated system of Order Picking Machinery. Equipped with eight COM machines, the OPM for SPAR will pick up to 66,500 dispatch units per day – and crucially all will be in sequence ready for shelves in store.

Matthew Nickson, director of Axiom GB, says the firm  is seeing a rise in sorters being used for returns.

“This additional processing over the sorter helps to significantly reduce pay back periods, lower operating costs and increase efficiencies within the operation, for very little extra investment,” says Nickson.

Indeed it’s difficult to overestimate the value of returns, Craig Rollason, managing director of Knapp UK explains: “Returns represent tied-up capital and therefore need to be processed and put back into stock as rapidly as possible.”

High speed returns

“As omni-channel continues to grow, logistics managers are beginning to realise the true importance of efficiency in returns handling, hence the impetus to apply automated techniques to this operation.

“Certain automation technologies naturally lend themselves to returns. KNAPP’s OSR Shuttle system, for example, is ideal for returning goods to stock quickly.”

And Naus agrees that automation is often the answer to the high speed required of processing returns. “Returning these products quickly to stock ready for sale is critical, both from a procure-to-cash cycle and from a product life cycle and markdown perspective.

Best practice is to feed these returns directly into the pick face, and prioritise the pick. As an example, a clothing retailer uses a sophisticated goods-to-picker system, using single-SKU totes,” says Naus.

But Verbenne also points out that the largest proportion of time required for returns processing is used checking the item and validating it for re-sale. And he says: “This doesn’t lend itself to picking technology.”

He says that Zetes, which partners with Vocollect for voice picking, is now seeing interest in blended solutions, often to boost manual value added processes. “Combining for example a screen with voice picking to help guide an operator to pick the correct item, for example, particular shades of an apple for premium orders, or for demonstrating the right stacking pattern,” he explains, “for instance during put-away, to speed up the process.

“Argos is doing this in the UK across all its stores, to ensure that stock items are placed back in the right location quickly and available for sale immediately.”

Another new trend for the retail sector is for “convenience” stores, with all kinds of shops such as  supermarkets, cafés, stationers and the like, appearing as multiple small stores.

Limited space

One of the biggest changes is the limited shelf space of such small stores. Slow moving stock effectively represents a missed opportunity. With the right visibility tools stores can optimise the stock profile, but this has to be supported by fulfilment operations.

Storage space is limited too. Hugh Williams of Hughenden Consulting describes it as a process where by reducing the amount of in-store storage capacity, you end up “close coupling” the warehouse picking operations and delivery operations to the store.

“This calls for new processes, new attitudes and knowledge when it comes to managing these processes.”

One new materials handling system, a layer picking truck called FlexiPiCK is targeting this market directly, by offering an efficient means of creating mixed pallets.

Also at Logistics Link, Synergy Logistics launched its SnapPTL system which it says will both lower the number of visits to a pick face, and increase accuracy. It works with Snapfulfil SaaS WMS, with a Pick to Light cart, to both drive pickers to the shortest walk sequence, and indicate to the picker which orders, totes, or cartons the items need to be picked into.

Commercial director Gavin Clark said: “With SnapPTL there is no longer a trade-off between shipment accuracy and a ‘hands free’ picking environment.”

So while the demands of the omni-channel market are still developing, so too are the systems to deal with them. The challenge is assessing the demand for each business, and getting the right blend of materials handling systems, technology and IT to make the best use of resources.

Case study: Automation powers sports e-tailer

German casual fashion brand, BRAX, founded in 1888, has sales of over €280 million through some 1,400 concessions and 84 of its own shops in Germany Belgium, Russia, Latvia, Ukraine and China.

It launched an e-commerce operation in 2009, and the expanding range led BRAX to invest in its logistics operations at its central warehouse in Herford, Germany.

The company installed the Pick-it-Easy Pocket solution from KNAPP at the site last year. The handling system spans three levels and accommodates 200,000 articles.

The label on each pair of trousers is scanned and the item is allocated to a roller adapter, allowing each pair of trousers to be traced throughout the entire system.

Items are divided into sorting runs and transferred to one of 30 batch buffer lines. A matrix sorter creates an arbitrary sequence of trousers and, by decoupling three sorting steps, reaches a speed of some 6,000 items per hour.

The trousers are transported to the multifunctional goods-out buffer where any value-added services can be carried out, and then arrive at 20 packing workstations. Here, they are decoupled from the roller adapters and packed for shipping.

Orders received by noon are delivered next-day or within a maximum of 48 hours. The benefits have been increased productivity, energy efficiency, high storage density and faster deliveries.

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