The challenge of delivering e-commerce, direct-to-consumer orders has introduced new levels of complexity in fulfillment centers. Wide variances in order profiles, the proliferation of SKUs and items with varying pick velocities are all highlighting the importance of effective order consolidation processes. Although many fulfillment centers are deploying automated systems in strategic areas of the facility to improve picking, sortation and putting efficiencies, order consolidation - which requires an effective way to aggregate this demand from disparate areas of the facility - often suffers. Regardless of the picking and sortation method used, put walls are becoming an indispensable tool for adapting to modern fulfillment demands and providing efficient order consolidation.
The premise behind put wall utilization is to bring together items gathered from disparate picking activities into one place. By consolidating this demand at one or more put walls throughout the facility, fulfillment centers see efficiency gains in upstream picking processes and, more importantly, increases in order fulfillment throughput and accuracy.
Traditional put walls are designed with fixed compartment sizes (or cubbies) and typically rely on lights, voice or RF technology to automate the confirmation process as an operator puts items into cubbies for specific orders. While effective, these fixed put wall designs may limit a retailer's ability to adapt these cubby sizes in response to changing order and product profiles, thus resulting in poor space utilization in the warehouse. The recent introduction of modular put wall designs, which allow the warehouse manager to change the configuration of cubby sizes (hardware) and light confirmation sequences (software) - provides the flexibility and space utilization that high-density fulfillment centers demand.
Our next On The Move webinar, titled, "Concerns about changing order profiles? 'Put' them to rest!" will explore these concepts and the increasing use of put walls in omnichannel fulfillment centers. The webinar will take place on Thursday, April 27, 2 p.m. EDT / 11 a.m. PDT, and be presented by Doug Mefford, product manager for order fulfillment with Intelligrated Software. With two decades of hands-on experience in driving throughput and accuracy in warehouse workflows and automation technologies, Doug will explain how put walls are improving order fulfillment productivity. Attendees will learn:
- The emerging role of the put wall and its order consolidation benefits
- Several key scenarios where put walls are effective
- How to recognize when order volume thresholds warrant put wall integration
- Why the need for flexibility led to new put wall hardware and software that enables user-driven customization
To learn more about put wall best practices and tips for integrating them in order fulfillment operations, register now for our upcoming On The Move webinar on Thursday, April 27, 2 p.m. EDT / 11 a.m. PDT.
Online shoppers are hungry for selection and speed. They want a strip mall worth of products at their fingertips, ready for delivery by their next meal. In fact, a recent survey shows that 87 percent of online shoppers identified shipping speed as a crucial factor in whether they were going to shop with a brand again, and 47 percent of those surveyed said they would pay more money to get same-day delivery.
The high volumes of smaller, individual orders flooding out of warehouses as a result of these e-commerce trends has spurred changes throughout distribution networks that have real consequences for material handling systems. For example, as carriers and shippers look to make the most efficient use of available delivery capacity, automated equipment must handle a wide range of packaging types - such as polybags.
How do I prepare for polybags?
To cut costs that come with dimensional weight pricing, more companies are using polybags or envelopes to ship individual e-commerce orders. For many omnichannel distribution centers, this means handling a variety of packaging types - polybags, corrugated boxes, totes - in one operating space.
Polybags, with their tendency to bunch up on themselves, bring a unique set of handling challenges. They need to move along a conveyor system with minimal contact and catchpoints to avoid jams and keep product moving. Motor driven roller (MDR) conveyor is the conveyor system of choice.
What are the advantages of MDR?
With the growing pressure to quickly ship items ranging in size from pill bottles to bed frames, the material handling industry is facing new challenges. To keep up with e-commerce order fulfillment, ask yourself: Are my conveyors ready for e-commerce? If you're using conventional conveyor systems designed to handle only cases or totes, the answer is probably no.
No mattter the order size or packaging type, effective e-commerce order fulfillment requires moving high volumes of items through distribution processes quickly and efficiently - without damage. Zero-contact MDR technology enables individually-powered zones to instantly stop, maximizing product control, eliminating back pressure and reducing the risk of product damage.
This technology maximizes the amount of items on the conveyor, allowing operations to make the most of available space and optimize accumulation density. For e-commerce operations challenged to house an ever-expanding inventory, efficient use of space is critical, ultimately resulting in more orders fulfilled, greater customer satisfaction and a growing business.
MDR systems also use fewer conveyor parts, helping lower maintenance requirements and reducing the risk of downtime. Its modular design can scale as operational demand dictates and easily adapt to existing layouts and footprints for easy installation, along with providing the flexibility to change configurations as business needs (and online shopping patterns) shift.
But that's only part of the MDR story
The versatility of MDR conveyor means it is not just limited to e-commerce order fulfillment and polybag handling. An array of advanced features such as a full width belt, an array eye and more can take operations to the next level - to say nothing of MDR conveyor's essential role as part of sophisticated automated material handling solutions. Keep an eye out for these aspects and more in part two and three of Intelligrated's MDR conveyor blog series.
In the meantime, read the Intelligrated white paper, Selecting the right accumulation conveyor, for more information on making the right conveyor choice.
The holiday season has come and gone, and early returns pointed to prosperity. But this also meant increased challenges for e-commerce fulfillment operations.
The National Retail Federation predicted an online sales increase between 7 and 10 percent this holiday season, and that 56.5 percent of holiday shopping would occur online. Now more than ever, holiday shoppers consider shipping as a factor when choosing retailers, and it all happens in crunch time, primarily between November and December.
Applications for peak season and beyond
Goods-to-operator (GTO) order fulfillment is a workflow that relies on automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) to retrieve product in preparation for picking processes.
This system allows facilities to house higher storage volumes and handle them with increased efficiency. This effectively raises fulfillment capacity, offering a solution for operations with 250 orders per hour or more. With enough space, shuttle-based GTO systems can scale up to handle increased volumes as operations grow.
Part of this scalability comes from individual GTO stations that can be activated or left offline based on demand. So for example, an e-commerce operation could scale higher for more orders during the holiday peak, but then scale back once the rush is over.
Resilient and flexible
Using shuttles as the AS/RS technology for a GTO system offers resiliency and reduced risk of unplanned downtime. If a shuttle goes down, the whole system is not in jeopardy because another shuttle can assume the workload.
Flexible configurations can accommodate a variety of workflows such as batch picking, discrete picking and even picking from both ends of the shuttle system.
From seasonal peaks to sustained demand increases, this flexibility allows operations to adopt the most efficient workflows to meet throughput requirements.
Get up to speed
For more information, read the full white paper, Conquer high-volume e-commerce with goods-to-operator order fulfillment. To learn more about Intelligrated's AS/RS solutions, click here.
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.
In a competitive omnichannel fulfillment era where retailers are constantly trying to meet rising customer service levels, flexibility in order fulfillment processes and distribution operations is mandatory for survival. It means having the ability to continuously adapt to a dynamic mix of order profiles and proliferating SKU counts, while always maintaining a keen awareness of their impacts on fulfillment processes and inventory consumption. It means effectively balancing retail, wholesale and direct-to-consumer requirements. And it means being nimble enough to adapt and respond in real time to spikes in demand.
If you think this all sounds difficult to achieve, you're right. But to successfully navigate these omnichannel requirements, retailers need real strategies to enable this degree of flexibility. This was the focus of a recent On The Move webinar I moderated, titled "Addressing the needs for flexibility in current distribution operations." It's a holistic approach that encompasses facility design, picking and putting processes, and the importance of effective labor management. Following is a summary of the webinar's high-level points:
Profiling, slotting and facility design. It's important to design your distribution facility to not only meet today's demands, but also have the flexibility to adapt to future requirements. Warehouse profiling, which seeks to maximize space utilization by determining which types of slotting options are best-suited for particular products, is vital to fully utilizing available facility space and reducing replenishment costs. Well-profiled items make the most efficient use of shelf and rack space.
Picking technologies. The selection of picking technologies and methods, or some combination thereof, is an important operational decision that helps enable flexibility in the warehouse. While some technologies may provide increased flexibility, there may be trade-offs in productivity and costs. Retailers must weigh the pros and cons of these methodologies and select options that meet their operational objectives and order and inventory profiles.
Putting strategies. Putting refers to the processes that support order consolidation through the gathering of multiple, independent storage or picking areas into a single, shippable container. Minimizing worker travel and touches, and "golden zone" allocations to increase accuracy and throughput are all part of an effective putting strategy necessary for adapting to e-commerce and store replenishment requirements.
Labor management software. LMS helps retailers match resources to the day's expected demands while maximizing the efficiency of all tasks throughout the warehouse. Demand planning, execution monitoring, resource allocation and continuous performance improvements can be achieved with LMS - establishing both process predictability and the flexibility to move resources to adapt to variations in a given plan.
In short, DCs need not only to become more flexible in their slotting, picking and putting operations, but also in allocating labor resources to meet the demands of the day. For a more detailed explanation of each of these strategies, please visit our On The Move webinar archives and view my presentation in its entirety.