Spiralling online buying is sending the fashion industry into a spin. Does automation hold the key to a more efficient warehouse? Or is it a costly hindrance? Alexandra Leonards looks at automation’s place within the industry.
E-commerce is growing rapidly, and it now holds firm roots in the spine of the retail industry. A double-edged sword, online shopping is both a burden and an advantage to retailers and their logistics partners.
For the apparel industry, the mammoth surge of online shopping has opened up the market. But at the same time has landed it with pressures that just didn’t exist ten or even five years ago. Consumer demand is unyielding, so it is up to the industry to adapt and keep up with this rapid online movement.
“E-commerce is very demanding of the logistics operation – combining a wide product range with small order quantities,” says Craig Rollason, managing director of Knapp UK.
In the warehouse, operations now need to factor in the significant requirement differences between home delivery services and transporting goods to store. Home deliveries transport flat-packed garments, while store replenishment requires hanging garments to avoid creasing and to ensure products are ‘store ready’. So finding a balanced technology is a top priority for retailers handling apparel.
“This is where Knapp’s Pick-it-Easy pocket sorter is an ideal solution because the pockets containing flat-packed goods and the hanging garments are handled and consolidated using the same overhead conveying system,” says Rollason. “The key to success in multichannel fashion distribution is the decoupling of the order structure and order processing, allowing large deliveries for shops and small orders for e-commerce customers to be processed together.”
And Rollason reckons that automation is well placed to increase its share of the fashion distribution market. “Retailers facing the significant challenge of managing stock across multiple channels find that automated systems – and the software that drives them – can help them to create a balance of processes that pick both orders for store replenishment and home delivery more efficiently.”
But there are times when an automated system isn’t appropriate. Catherine Thornley, supply chain consultant at Indigo Software, says that this is especially true for speciality garment manufacturers who ship smaller quantities to a diverse range of retail outlets.
“Before investing in automation it’s essential to consider the volume, size and diversity of the order profiles,” she says. “If you are sending smaller orders to hundreds of stores and a variety of retailer types, each with different delivery and value add requirements, it’s very difficult to automate efficiently because of the impact it inevitably has on warehouse flexibility.”
Having a certain level of automation designed for each specific requirement can complement the operation as a whole, and could be more efficient than having a warehouse run exclusively on automated systems.
For some retailers, to achieve a balanced and flexible operation, a bespoke system is necessary. Especially in the fashion industry where seasons can change more than once a month – there needs to be a tangible flexibility to cope with the continual change.
“Indigo works with a well known lingerie brand that sells high-end items through leading department stores and specialist boutiques,” says Thornley. The company has introduced a level of automation that works best for them. In their operation orders are picked into a carton assigned to a specific number.
While this carton moves through the warehouse, the automated WMS system automatically prints a list of requirements for every delivery. “Including the level of ‘value add’ required,” says Thornley. “It also prints customer labels automatically, which are then applied to the goods so they know the contents of the carton and whom it is for, allowing them to print specific product labels for each customer.”
But is it always necessary to implement some form of automation? Or do some fashion houses work best without it altogether?
“A key challenge is weighing up whether to invest in the first place,” says Thornley. “There are pros and cons to investing in automation and for many apparel manufacturers, especially where they are focused on niche or luxury brands, it is not the best or most cost efficient approach, because automation often brings with it a loss of flexibility.
“For example, many of Indigo’s apparel customers are brand owners supplying independent retailers and department stores.
“Their investments in automation tend to be highly customised and need to offer high levels of flexibility, to enable them to adapt orders to suit the differing profiles of outlets they sell into.”
In Indigo’s experience, many garment manufacturers are cautious of automation – they often question how beneficial it actually is to their Return on Investment (ROI).“Because they are managing to handle and ship their goods efficiently using warehouse operatives instead anyway,” says Thornley.
In the fashion world, a warehouse needs to be set up for a particular season’s garment range. Before that season is over, it needs to be re-planned for the succeeding product line. This means that there are periods of unavoidable downtime in the warehouse. Thornley says that automation in these scenarios creates a ‘level of inflexibility’.
“It also has implications for demand forecasting because it means that in some instances, a manufacturer might not ship a repeat order because goods might go out once or twice for the season and then not be seen in the warehouse again,” says Thornley. “Having garments packaged specifically to be ready for merchandising and in the right sequence is key because garments might not have been stocked before.”
Generally, if a fashion house does decide to pick automation, a sortation system is top of the list. Thornley says that with declining stockroom space at retail stores, warehouses are now under pressure to deliver the stock in a precise sequence for merchandising. This is so that goods can be delivered at night and put directly back onto the shop floor.
“This means sorting the delivery before despatch,” says Thornley. “As all customer requirements are different, it’s not as simple as sorting the pick face layout to suit and that’s where the sortation system adds value. Sortation systems are an essential investment where a manufacturer is shipping high volume orders to a number of different retail outlets.”
Sophisticated sequencing techniques are one way to make sure the shelf replenishment at stores are streamlined. These methods ensure quicker restocking of shelves and racks for staff in store.
“By placing items into totes at the DC in the correct sequence for individual store layouts product can quickly be moved from a receiving bay at the back of store, through a logical replenishment process, enabling staff to confidently place items in the correct positions, with fewer delays due to removing outer cartons, disposing of waste packaging and searching for the right product,” says Matt Hatson, business solutions sales director at Dematic. “Further value-adding tasks, such as ticketing, re-labelling and the attachment of security tags can also be undertaken at the DC to reduce the burden on shop staff, freeing them to focus on interaction with customers and generating sales.”
The returns process is becoming increasingly problematic for fashion retailers in particular. Shoppers are sending items back because online images quite often don’t match the reality. And shoppers may buy one item in three different sizes, only to send two or all of them back.
“Recent research showed that more than half of shoppers who bought any type of clothing online in the past six months sent one or more items back,” says Knapp’s Rollason. “With there being a trend towards increased internet shopping using smartphones – especially among younger consumers – this figure is expected to rise, as mobile shoppers tend to make more impulse purchases.”
To counteract these concerning trends, retailers are making improvements to their online stores with 360-degree views and improved photography.
“We find that clients are now much more realistic about the levels of returns they are likely to face than they were a few years ago,” says Rollason. The movement of fashion goods can be an expensive process. And automation may play a role in reducing these costs.
“To reduce costs, retailers need to think about handling product less,” says Rollason. “This might mean cross docking of stock.
“When it comes to returns, it might simply mean not integrating returns with the main stock – the automated system knows where the products are so there is no need to reintegrate them.”
The seasonality of the industry also impacts returns in a significant way. “The key here is that returns must be visible to the control system as saleable stock as soon as possible,” says Rollason.
Robotic technologies on the way
Robotics is a trend that we are seeing in many arms of the logistics and supply chain industries. And it may well be the next big thing in warehouse automation for the fashion sector.
“At Knapp we are already developing systems that use robotic technology to place goods into the sorter bags of our Pick-it-Easy pocket sortation system,” says Craig Rollason, Knapp’s managing director. “After a matrix sortation process, such goods can then be consolidated with other parts of the order – arriving in other pockets or as hanging garments on the same overhead conveyor system – at the packing station.”
As a result of the movement towards an even bigger e-tail market, other technologies are being brought to the fore. Goods-to-person technologies are becoming increasingly popular in the sector.
“The continued rise of e-tail is favouring goods-to-person technologies,” says Rollason. “The smaller orders typical in e-commerce are more labour-intensive to fulfil but automation can help retailers to reduce costs,” says Rollason. “The improved picking accuracy also helps to minimise costly returns.”
The use of RFID in the warehouse is also likely to increase because of reduced costs and improvement in technical performance that has been seen over the last few years.
“The benefit for retailers, of course, is enhanced inventory visibility,” says Rollason. “Knapp’s Pick-it-Easy Pocket sortation system uses this technology, with every roll adapter on the system having an RFID transponder.
“This enables each individual clothing article to be precisely tracked through the entire flow of goods, with dynamic access to the item possible at any time.”
Put it in a pouch
The company’s Pouch Sortation System has actually been designed specifically for the fashion industry. It provides a flexible and scalable solution which is based on the hanging pouch design. The equipment enables a batch to be picked in advance, buffered and brought down to individual packing stations in a specific order sequence.
The company says that the system’s diversity means it is suitable for multichannel fashion retailers.
Dave Bull, sales manager at Dematic Northern Europe, says that the system lends itself to solving several discrete problems that are faced by omni-channel retailers looking for a highly efficient batch picking process.
“The critical benefit of a pouch sorter is that it enables e-commerce retailers to perform a batch pick, and because in a batch picking process density of picking is greatly increased – as it reduces the distances travelled by pickers – much higher pick rates are achieved, often presenting a 200 – 300 per cent improvement on traditional methods,” he says. “But in addition, you can easily vary the batch sizes, which creates flexibility.”
The system supports manual processes as well as automated. Manual picking can be run alongside the batch picking operation. Bull says that this is particularly convenient during peak periods like Black Friday, as it enables ‘human intervention for added super flexibility’.
Batch picked items are delivered to high-speed induction stations – individual items are then scanned by an operative, and then put into one of the systems ‘hanging pouches’. Dematic says the overhead sortation systems ‘allows items to be stored in pouches within dynamic picking loops, buffering them until they are called off automatically by the WMS for specific orders, and then delivering items in discrete order sequence to the packing stations for efficient packing and despatch.’
The sorting system can be combined and integrated with other existing systems because it comes in ‘modules’. Each of these is able to sort around 7,500 products per hour. The module structure means that operators can scale up or down i.e. four modules together can give a sorting capacity of 30,000 items per hour.
“Even with just one sorter module it’s very scalable. All you have to do is introduce more packing stations, pouches, induct stations and buffer lanes as you need them until you reach the module’s capacity of 7,500 items per hour. Then when you need extra bandwidth you just introduce another module,” says Bull.
Picking made easy for SeD Logistique
French company SeD Logistique has rolled out Knapp’s Pick-it-easy Pocket matrix sortation system. The automated system ensures that orders are dispatched within 48 hours – with 95 per cent of the goods being handled by the bag sorter.
From a variety of 160,000 different articles, between 10,000 and 20,000 orders are picked a day. Orders range from hanging garments and jewellery, to shoe boxes and toys.
In the allocation process, products are mass-picked from the warehouse, independently of orders. After this, the sorter picks the articles from the respective orders. Then products are removed from the transport containers at ergonomically designed charging stations.
In the sortation process, operators scan barcodes of the products and push them into the sorter bag – the transponder allows the identification and tracking of the products throughout the next part of the process.
The sortation bags are taken from the ground floor to level one, and stored in ‘buffer tracks’. Then, to bring the products into the correct sequence, the bags go through a three stage sorting process. The sorter will pick the goods, put orders into the right order and then sort up to 5,000 items.
During the order processing stage, the items are brought back to the ground floor and allocated to packing stations ‘order for order’ in the correct sequence. Operators can receive all necessary information to process orders via a monitor – a delivery note is printed automatically when an order has been confirmed. When this stage has completed, the goods are automatically packed in foil or into cartons.