Today's omnichannel fulfillment operations face unprecendented challenges. Rapidly increasing SKU counts, the proliferation of single-item orders and same-day delivery expectations are impacting nearly every piece of the order fulfillment process. From inventory storage and picking to order consolidation and shipping, fulfillment centers are implementing new solutions to survive and keep pace with demand.
In our most recent On The Move webinar, I took a closer look at the trending solutions leading retailers are deploying to keep pace with omnichannel demands. The reality of today's e-commerce driven world is that many fulfillment centers are handling up to 700,000 active SKUs; all must be available for picking at any given time. While it's estimated that 75 percent of SKUs account for 99.9 percent of orders, even the less frequently ordered products must be managed to meet the same service level agreements.
This trend presents significant fulfillment challenges and is changing the means by which omnichannel operations are being conducted. Common picking strategies retailers are deploying range from improvements to manual methods to increasing degrees of automation:
- Manual pick modules with traditional shelving - Still a valid option, especially combined with RF, voice and augmented reality in the picking area; can be constrained by the availability of labor
- Mini-load cranes - Allow for better utilization of building space, although not necessarily for retrofits in existing lower-profile buildings; ideal for lower-rate pick items
- Shuttle systems - Effective in existing or new buildings, shuttles reduce the need for labor when paired with goods-to-operator (GTO) methodology; well-suited for higher rates of demand as well as high- and low-rate items
One caveat to increasing automation is a reminder that for maximum utilization and ROI, these systems should be designed for peak demand periods.
On the order fulfillment side of the equation, I also provided general guidelines for developing the ideal solution for a particular application, keeping in mind that fulfillment centers may be responsible for as many as 300,000 orders per day. Order fulfillment strategies I presented in the webinar included:
- Light-directed cart fulfillment - Basic method that many big-box retailers are deploying in their DC networks (not dedicated e-commerce fulfillment centers.) Allows discreet and batch-picking for up to 10,000 orders per day.
- Zone routing pick-and-pass - Ideal for up to 50,000 orders per day, system integrates pick-to-light, RF or voice-directed pick modules via intelligent conveyor and sortation methods. Alternatively, some operations are using small automated guide vehicles (AGV) or robots to route orders from zone to zone.
- Put walls - Ideal for peak output periods or seasonal promotions with higher order volumes. They can be combined with an existing zone routing system which can then become a batch pick option for the put wall system.
- Tilt-tray / cross-belt sortation - Well-suited for up to 150,000 orders per day or pick rates up to 25,000 items per hour. It allows retailers to run e-commerce, B2B and retail fulfillment operations on the same sorter; can be combined with mobile put walls to flex with peak volumes.
Finally, I discussed the increasing role of robotics in omnichannel fulfillment centers, especially as technologies transition from case picking mixed-pallet building to each picking requirements. To learn more and view this webinar in its entirety, please visit our On The Move webinar archives.