Flexibility is the order of the day

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Across a wide range of industries, supply chain flexibility is moving to the top of the agenda. As a result, a fresh debate has been sparked on the relative merits of logistics automation. For some, adaptability has always been its weak link. While sophisticated systems have delivered improved efficiency, critics argue they are ill-equipped to react with sufficient speed to changes in the commercial environment.

However, a new approach to logistics automation is emerging, in the shape of order assembly systems. Above all else, these solutions deliver both productivity and flexibility.

Disparate sectors, including retail grocery, food manufacturing, general merchandise and some wholesalers, share common business challenges. As consumers demand greater choice, product proliferation becomes a major challenge; the range of SKUs (stock keeping units) that a distribution centre must accommodate is multiplying.

The range of retail formats that must be supported is also growing. For example, supermarket groups now have portfolios that encompass convenience outlets, supermarkets, superstores, hypermarkets and online channels. And while shareholders expect ever better returns, few companies can justify premium pricing. Cutting costs is therefore critical.

Within logistics, this is reflected in a desire for ‘store-friendly’ deliveries, ensuring that goods can be put on display quickly and easily. Transport costs are spiralling, so optimum utilisation of trailer space is imperative. Rising labour costs mean that enhanced productivity is particularly important, as is the drive towards 100 per cent picking accuracy. Finally, these objectives must be met within a regulatory framework that is placing tighter controls over manual handling.

Over recent years, high speed sortation has become an essential element of many picking systems.

Correctly implemented, there is no doubt that it can deliver a step change in performance. However, it is apparent that, in certain applications, this ‘traditional’ approach is no longer suited to the aforementioned challenges. For example, like its manual counterpart, the typical automated DC requires a discrete pick location for each SKU.

At some stage, product proliferation makes this impossible to accommodate – the worker must travel further and further to cover the extended pick face. Similarly, sorter based solutions rely on each store being allocated a sorter chute. The sheer diversity of retail formats eventually makes this unfeasible. It can also be difficult to balance throughput and labour resources.

Staff manning some chutes may be idle while others struggle to keep up. Sorters, although they collate, do not efficiently deliver complex sequencing, making store-friendly output a challenge.

Those seeking greater flexibility have often stuck with manual techniques – at the cost of speed, accuracy and increased running costs. However, order assembly systems offer an alternative solution. Described as an order fulfilment technique where stored products are brought together on demand at one location to assemble complete dispatch units, order assembly systems exploit the goods-to-man principle.

But, while GTM has typically involved a relatively limited number of slow-moving items held in a miniload or carousel, the arrival of ‘Multishuttle’ high throughput storage and retrieval technology for totes and cartons means that high rate perfectly sequenced deliveries to stations are now possible.

Custom designed from standardised components, order assembly systems might typically include a pallet store, an automated or manual layer picker to break down full pallets, a multi-shuttle and finally, highly ergonomic workstations where staff build dispatch containers.

There is no need for a dedicated pick location for each SKU. The dead time spent by staff travelling between locations is eliminated. The order in which goods are sent to pack stations is sequenced to ensure store-friendly delivery units, regardless of the retail format being served. In contrast to sorter based systems, workers pull product to their pallet pack stations, maintaining productivity.

Each stage of the process is decoupled, so the risk of single points of failure is all but eliminated. Staff work in parallel, unaffected by each other, and stations can be opened and closed to balance workload and staff.

Furthermore, these modular, scalable systems can readily be expanded to accommodate business growth.


Order assembly systems do not make established automation systems obsolete. However, they do represent a powerful new solution. In particular, they provide an effective response to the key challenge of the global market:

the need to combine high operational flexibility and adaptability with a relentless downward pressure on costs. Order assembly solutions are already delivering results for companies large and small across Europe and America.

Companies who have previously dismissed automation as too inflexible are encouraged to evaluate these latest solutions in relation to their business needs. After all, there is more than a fair chance that their competitors are already doing just that.

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