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As Order Complexity Increases, Scalability Makes AS/RS More Valuable

As Order Complexity Increases, Scalability Makes AS/RS More Valuable

   Rick Graff

As Order Complexity Increases, Scalability Makes AS/RS More Valuable

Scalability is a clear advantage to automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) compared to older material handling technologies. 

Strong business growth, fueled by e-commerce fulfillment and omnichannel requirements, is driving distribution center (DC) operators to invest in AS/RS to augment goods-to-person (GTP) processes. In these systems, automated shuttle systems pick totes from racks and deliver products to people at picking stations. There’s a strong business case to be made for this approach. 

In response to increasing e-commerce order fulfillment requirements, DC operators are considering adding inventory and thus will need more storage. AS/RS provides a growth path. As the technology advances, GTP picking stations will become even more automated, including through the addition of robotic systems that pick collaboratively alongside humans (or replace human pickers altogether). DC operators have multiple options from which to choose to expand their AS/RS, including the following:

  • Add aisles or levels and GTP stations to make full use of the floor space and height inside the DC. 
  • Convert some of the GTP stations to GTR. 
    • Robotic pickers can increase throughput, and utilizing them to expand an existing DC can optimize a material handling equipment investment. 
      • For example, to expand DC capacity, a DC operator may need to only invest in four GTR stations (compared to six GTP stations if the DC had been expanded with conventional processes and technologies).
  • Upgrade DC software and racking and conveyance hardware to make better use of existing square footage and avoid the capital expense of warehouse expansion or new construction. 

Today’s fulfillment and distribution environment is well-suited for AS/RS shuttle technologies. Retail stores replenish their shelves with more split-case orders. Full-pallet orders are being replaced with more frequent, smaller-quantity orders. 

In turn, the retail shift to e-commerce fulfillment requires significantly more labor for picking and sorting if a DC isn’t highly automated. Chronic shortages of reliable labor compound this challenge. Enter AS/RS, which is quicker compared to conventional crane or mini-load systems, making AS/RS the ideal next technology to keep up with changing retail fulfillment requirements. 

Processing More Orders With AS/RS 

Let’s follow an example of how a shuttle AS/RS solution can automate and speed up the material handling of growing e-commerce orders:

For Receiving

Some DC operators invest in dedicated decant or replenishment stations to receive and restock inventory. Depending on volume, many DC operators decide to pick orders during the first shift and replenish inventory during a later shift using the same material handling equipment, but essentially running it in reverse. 

Shuttles in an AS/RS are ideal for this role, which can look like this:

  1. Replenishment stations are located near the receiving area, so palleted goods don’t have to be moved far.
  2. At each station, empty totes are scanned, and the operator scans the inbound inventory items to confirm the quantity put into each tote.
  3. The AS/RS conveying system transports the totes to lifts that raise the products to a rack level where storage space is available.
  4. The totes are transferred to AS/RS shuttles that travel up or down an aisle and put the totes into the racks.

The shuttle AS/RS coordinates with a warehouse execution system (WES) to continuously calculate the best rack location for each container size. AS/RS also utilizes SKU information to spread inventory across aisles and levels and follows put-away rules that determine rack locations for specific items.

Inventory records are updated by a WES based on communication from the shuttle AS/RS. To ensure tight integration of the technologies, some AS/RS vendors sell and implement WES as part of their warehouse automation services.

For Picking 

Inventory stored in the racks is identified by the WES, which instructs the shuttle AS/RS to retrieve and deliver products to GTP pick stations as follows:

  1. Shuttles drive up and down aisles between the racks.
  2. Shuttles can run on every rack level and retrieve totes stored on any aisle.
  3. Shuttles deliver totes to the ends of aisles and place them on a lift.
  4. The lift lowers or raises totes to an outbound station on a mezzanine or floor level and releases the totes to a conveying system.
  5. The conveying system transports the totes to GTP stations, where each order is assigned.
  6. The operator picks items from the totes to fill each order.
  7. Picked items are placed by the operator into a shipping box or another tote that goes to another location in the building where other, different size items will be picked.
  8. When an order is completed, totes go to a shipping consolidation area for final processing into one box.

Scale up Without New DC Construction

Operators of DCs and warehouses have started to address escalating volume, velocity, costs, and the chronic workforce shortage by investing in shuttle AS/RS technology. They can rely on AS/RS to accurately handle higher volumes of smaller, lighter loads in cartons, trays, totes or bins. 

Shuttle AS/RS can also provide flexible storage configurations and enable businesses to scale without the cost of constructing additional warehouse space. View our infographic to to see how an AS/RS shuttle solution can increase your distribution operational speed, accuracy and reliability.

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