The evolution of item picking in order fulfillment has taken giant steps toward automation in recent decades. Today's AS/RS, shuttle and robotics technologies have the potential to deliver revolutionary throughput advances. We are now in an e-commerce era where traditional fulfillment methodologies struggle to keep up with proliferating SKUs and escalating order volumes. But these advances come with a cost, and making the move toward shuttles and robotics requires a clear justification of the investment. In our most recent On The Move webinar, titled "Shuttles: The new face of the DC workforce," I examined this evolution and discussed the factors involved with making the transition to shuttle system efficiencies.
To put things into the proper context, I began the webinar with an anology that illustrates the difference between traditional operator-to-goods (OTG), manual warehouse fulfillment methodologies and the goods-to-operator (GTO) philosophy employed by shuttle systems:
- OTG is akin to a visit to the grocery store, where shoppers traverse from aisle to aisle to find the goods they're looking for
- GTO is similar to a visit to the dry cleaner, where the item is delivered automatically to the stationary cashier via a carousel system
OTG fulfillment strategies are characterized by labor-intensive processes that can lead to time wasted walking and result in pick rates of approximately 250 items per hour. While OTG requires a low capital investment due to the absence of advanced automation technology, onging labor resources lead to high operating costs.
Although 99 percent of fulfillment operations today still utilize OTG processes, there are compelling factors driving the move toward GTO methods and the adoption of AS/RS and shuttle technology:
- Rising minimum wage
- Aging baby boomer generation and lack of qualified workforce
- Shuttles provide much higher throughput (1,000/hr)
- Improved scalability, and layout and application flexibility
Generally speaking, GTO requires the presence of an AS/RS system with a stationary operator, and thus a relatively higher capital investment than OTG strategies. But when you factor in the labor savings, higher pick rates and the elimination of wasteful walking, GTO significantly reduces operating costs.
Continuing along the specturum of automation technologies, I introduced the concept of humanless warehousing, or goods-to-robot (GTR) fulfillment. While GTR also requires AS/RS shuttles, a robot performs the actual item picking at the point of fulfillment. As a result, GTR holds the promise of continuous productivity (with no breaks) while completely eliminating labor. GTR is an ideal fit for single-item picking and packing as SKUs proliferate and DCs strives for maintaining lean inventories. This sophisticated automation architecture requires the highest capital investment, yet results in the lowest operating costs.
It's also important to understand the relationship between capacity and throughput in selecting a shuttle or automation technology, from unit-load and mini-load to carousel and shuttle systems. As the amount of storage space or throughput speed increase, these different technologies have unique applicability.
Finally, I closed the webinar by demonstrating the flexibility and efficiency of Intelligrated shuttle systems and how AS/RS is ideal for high-volume operators with high-turn storage and short order cycle times. To learn how to integrate shuttle systems in your DC operators, please visit the Intelligrated website to view this webinar in its entirety.