Automation: Challenging channels

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Automated systems have an important role to play in the development of multi-channel and omni-channel retailing. Malory Davies looks at the challenges.

When Knapp won the UK Intralogistics Award for Automation earlier this year, it highlighted the way in which automated systems are enabling retailers to respond to the demands of multiple sales channels to provide an “omni-channel” solution.

This article was published in the December 2015 issue of Logistics Manager.

This article was published in the December 2015 issue of Logistics Manager. processed £1.1 billion of online sales in 2013, compared to the 2010 forecast of just £300 million. The scale and complexity of the solution stood out – enabling a major retailer to adapt its supply chain to meet radical changes in demand. The modular nature of the solution impressed the judges as did the future proofing.

Total Logistics director Ben Wright points out that e-fulfilment has a significantly different profile to retail and wholesale channels, in that is has lower pick quantities per order and low units per final package.

“The challenge of the multi-channel environment therefore becomes the range of order sizes, frequency and timing of order processing driven by different despatch requirements. Automation can go a long way to supporting the processing of these orders in a cost effective manner, and there are significant developments in recent years to help deliver this, for example, pouch sortation, goods-to-man solutions and despatch buffers. However, the challenge remains in finding an automated solution that can accommodate order profiles across the channels – retail, wholesale and e-fulfilment – as the various differences in scale and profile can make it difficult to provide a sustained, steady state activity, which is where automation delivers best.”

Mike Alibone, business development manager, Systems Group at SSI Schaefer, says: “Increasingly rapid access to stock and ever-shortening picking times are key to successful fulfilment in multi-channel distribution operations. Automated systems which remove the need for ABC analysis and support ‘chaotic storage’ are able to fulfil this requirement most easily. SSI Schaefer’s new 3D-Matrix system does this, and is used for storing and picking totes, cartons, trays, and layer trays as well as pallets. Each element of the transport equipment can move independently and simultaneously around the warehouse in the x, y and z directions with the help of shuttle systems, offering seamless order sequencing, with no bottlenecks. Access to stored goods, or load units, is achieved by means of the shuttles and the requested load units are moved to lift transfer stations, where they are buffered. Each lift has access to the transfer stations, enabling sequenced picking and load-based putaway. The system can be configured to include an almost unlimited number of picking and shipping stations that can be integrated individually and to which goods can be sent in sequence.”

Stuart Stables, managing director of Dematic Northern Europe, sees intelligent software as being at the heart of omni-channel’s fulfilment revolution.

“Order profiles are very different for store and internet channels. So, how do you suit both requirements? You can’t solve a problem like this with pure mechanics. Automation is part of the requirement when you have scale, but the profiles are so different for each channel that it’s a matter of using innovative, intelligent software which can reduce the need for mechanical equipment such as buffers and sorters.”

He points out that Dematic has developed a new concept called RapidPut that uses software to remove the need for the high levels of automation normally demanded by e-fulfilment operations. In effect, the sophisticated software at the heart of RapidPut creates a dynamic ‘pick and put’ process – a wave-less or endless batching system that removes the requirement for sortation equipment.

Bito partners with integrators to offer storage systems as part of an overall solution, including providing shelving and containers for Dematic’s RapidPut. System. Managing director Edward Hutchison highlights the fact that SMEs are rarely able to invest the capital outlay required for full-blown automated materials handling solutions. But, he says, having the right intelligent software and ‘middle-ground mechanisation’ allows a first step on the automation ladder, while at the same time giving scalability and agility – which is vitally important in the fast evolving e-fulfilment sector.

Dealing with returns can be a real problem in a multi-channel environment. David Stocker, director at DAI Supply Chain, highlights the fact that returns volumes particularly in omni-channel fashion fulfilment tend to be high.

“Initial processing of returned items tends to be a laborious manual process which is difficult to automate. Thereafter, returned items suitable for resale can be handled via automated storage techniques aimed at individual items, which tend to be Goods to Person solutions. Automation can thus deliver efficiencies into the put-away, storage and subsequent picking processes.

“Automatic packaging machines, including auto-bagging and automatic carton closing machinery, including automatic printing of despatch notes, are now well established. These can lead to significant labour savings and can overcome what is typically one of the largest operational bottlenecks in omni-channel fulfilment centres.

Both require integration with conveyor solutions to provide the greatest operational benefit, and overall co-ordination through automation-capable warehouse management systems such as DAI’s Matflo suite.

Any potential buyer of automation equipment needs to think long and hard about the return on investment. Total’s Ben Wright points out that the largest ROIs are generated where the equipment can be use for prolonged periods of time, at capacity, and remove labour. “This is true whether the technology is new, or is well established.”

Flexibility is also an important consideration. “We have seen cases of good investments on paper not delivering when the business profile changes. Technology investments which provide a sustained 24/7 productivity but also allow for additional supplementary operations to handle demand variability will always deliver,” says Wright.


Innovations: On the horizon


Warehouse automation is becoming more prevalent, and the systems are becoming more complex and integrated.

Looking ahead, Total Logistics director Ben Wright foresees higher throughputs and shorter lead times: “all achieved with a lighter workforce that is multi-skilled. It may also mean that manual tasks that remain will either be complex, such as product customisation, or will be highly repetitive such as packing.”

He highlights a number of developments including: RFID tracking of load handlers, allowing more complex multi-handling systems to have greater information and reporting capabilities; development of more flexible load handing devices; development of smaller and cheaper AGV systems; advancements in hanging garment systems to accommodate boxed goods; and continued development of packing technologies and materials to support e-commerce.

“On a separate note, recent developments in 3D representations of automation designs have significantly improved the automation vendor’s ability to communicate complex layouts of automated equipment,” says Wright.

Andy Robson, supply chain solutions manager at GS1, also sees developments in high bay AS/RS storage systems for bulk product storage. And he highlights new picking methods, such as pick-to-belt and pick-by-light.

Robotic technologies are well established in sectors such as automotive manufacturing. But now, says David Stocker, robotics is beginning to be adopted into warehousing. “We are seeing both simpler applications such as robotic stacking of totes onto delivery dollies, to more complex and technically difficult applications such as robotic picking of grocery cases onto pallets. It remains early days for these technologies.”


Voice: Speaking the right language

Coop Netherlands has seen a ten per cent productivity boost since switching voice supplier to Honeywell Vocollect. The retailer had experienced performance issues with its old system which was not from Honeywell Vocollect. One particular problem was that the many Polish workers at the site were obliged to speak Dutch which the old voice system struggled to recognise.

Selecting a new supplier with a voice solution that integrates directly with Coop’s SAP system has resulted in improvements in speech recognition and overall system performance. Peter Lokerse, logistics manager, says: “Compared to the old system, we’ve seen a ten per cent increase in productivity and our employees are much more satisfied with the new system.”

ICT manager Marco van der Zalm adds: “It takes only 15 minutes to train people on the Vocollect system. With the old system it took much longer as people were constantly having to repeat and repeat words before the system could recognise them. What’s more, both the Dutch and Polish workers can be trained in their own language.”


Technology: Lear picks Gebhardt

Lear Corporation has chosen Gebhardt-ECS to implement a dynamic multi-level storage and picking system at its car seat factory at Coventry.

The large range of designs and optional items means that the conventional mezzanine-equipped storage and picking system at the factory had become inefficient and expensive to operate.

The solution developed by Gebhardt-ECS includes the use of 14 Storebiter MLS multi-level shuttles to handle 18,000 storage trays. Each MLS shuttle can access four levels of trays, which significantly increases the quantity of trays that can be stored compared to conventional single-level shuttles.

The project, which also includes mezzanines, tote conveyors and a Gebhardt Storeware warehouse control system, is currently being installed and is due to come into operation at the end of this year.

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