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MMH Webcast Recap: Addressing E-commerce Impacts

I recently participated in a Modern Materials Handling (MMH) webcast to discuss some of the findings from “The Impacts of e-Commerce, Fulfillment Challenges and Improvement Priorities,” Honeywell Intelligrated’s research collaboration with the Peerless Research Group. The panel included: Judd Aschenbrand, director of research, Peerless Research Group; Lisa Howard, manager of software product management, Honeywell Intelligrated; and Luther Webb, director of operations and solutions consulting, Honeywell Intelligrated. Bob Trebilcock, executive editor of MMH, moderated this informative event.

Our research surveyed 171 U.S.-based material handling executives to gain insights into how the complexities of e-commerce have impacted their organizations’ fulfillment operations. The first data point of the research helped frame the webcast’s discussion, as Judd presented the respondents’ top order management, fulfillment and distribution challenges:

  • Improving productivity by fulfilling more orders, faster and at lower costs
  • Reducing errors in order processing
  • Finding, training and retaining qualified labor resources to handle increasing volumes
  • Keeping pace with rising customer expectations

In response, we discussed a wide range of solutions that companies are actively employing to address these issues. Let’s take a look at a few of the options we discussed.

AS/RS, robotic picking and automation

While the focus in recent years has been on deploying picking automation for the 20 percent of SKUs that make up the most commonly ordered, we’re now seeing more DC operators expanding their focus to include the other 80 percent. In response, many fulfillment operations have introduced automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) shuttles to help efficiently manage their entire SKU mix and alleviate labor resourcing pressures. 

To improve productivity and reduce errors, many DCs are integrating robotic picking automation (via articulated arms) and goods-to-operator (GTO) stations, especially to offset labor-intensive and repetitive tasks. In addition, many have deployed automated truck unloaders as an efficient alternative to the arduous manual tasks of truck loading and unloading, which are often performed in extreme temperatures.

Labor management software (LMS)

During peak demand cycles, fulfillment volumes can grow up to three times their normal rates. Since these peak periods typically represent only two to three weeks out of a year, they present temporary staffing challenges for DC operators. LMS provides a suite of tools that allows DC managers and supervisors to mitigate these challenges, regardless of the demand requirements.

LMS helps supervisors quickly visualize labor status, identify bottlenecks, and understand how people, operations and facilities are performing. Historical data allows managers to accurately forecast their staffing requirements in both peak and off-season scenarios, thereby reducing their reliance on temporary sources. By leveraging advanced analytics capabilities, LMS utilizes algorithms to help identify employees who may be at risk of leaving. This allows management to take proactive steps and try to retain top-performing resources.

Dynamic warehouse execution systems (WES)

Coordinating automation systems and resource availability is critical to meeting e-commerce customer expectations. Although pick-to-lights, voice picking and put walls are all tools many DCs have integrated to improve order accuracy and productivity, a lack of real-time visibility into all automation activities can still present throughput barriers. This where a WES can help. 

A WES can check workstation and labor capacity and intelligently route work to available areas. By evenly distributing the workload, a WES limits unnecessary congestion, bottlenecks and overworked resources. In doing so, it alleviates labor fatigue that could potentially lead to errors and lost productivity. 

These are just a few of the solutions DC operators are using today to improve their e-commerce fulfillment capabilities. To learn more, view this webcast in its entirety.