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Offset labor challenges with AS/RS shuttle automation

Rapidly-increasing customer expectations are creating a challenging fulfillment landscape. E-commerce order volumes are three times higher than the retail industry as a whole. Consumers want greater product variety, creating larger and more volatile inventories, and they expect fast - and free - delivery. Mass urbanization adds additional challenges by shrinking available space and making prime locations more expensive.

These demands are compounded by a shrinking labor pool, placing upward pressure on wages. U.S. warehouses currently face 600,000 unfilled jobs and a 25% turnover rate. The cost of finding and training a replacement can easily reach 25% of a lost worker's salary - not to mention lost productivity, stress on other associates while a position is being filled, training time and reduced efficiency during onboarding. In an environment like this you need to make the best use of the valuable labor you have, and keep them sufficiently engaged so they aren't tempted to jump ship.

Automation and fulfillment technologies can help you achieve both of these goals by shifting your picking workflow from the traditional operator-to-goods (OTG) model to goods-to-operator (GTO) fulfillment.

The operator-to-goods workflow can be compared to shopping in a supermarket. Workers currently spend up to half their time walking between pick locations before picking. Adding more workers offers only diminishing returns as overcrowding and aisle congestion creates higher cycle times. The benefits of low capital investment are quickly lost to high operating costs, which are increasingly unsustainable in today's competitive market. 

Costly walk time is completely eliminated in the goods-to-operator fulfillment model, which uses automation to retrieve inventory and deliver it to employees. Think of the carousels that bring clothing directly to the worker at the front of a dry cleaner and you have the basic idea behind GTO.

The GTO workflow tackles the continual problem of souring labor by enabling significantly higher pick rates, which reduces overall labor requirements. GTO facilities maintain high efficiency as order volumes rise - when demand spikes require boosting the system's capacity at a moment's notice. Workers also reap the benefits of improved ergonomics, higher safety, increased focus and greater long-term productivity. 

While GTO systems require more capital investment, their operational benefits and lower operating costs drive real long-term savings. More orders are fulfilled with greater accuracy in less time, using fewer employees. 

Automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) shuttles are the key to the GTO model. They enable:

  • Greater storage density
  • More storage capacity
  • Layout flexibility
  • Easier scalability
  • Quicker access to inventory to feed downstream processes

Shuttles deliver these benefits by retrieving inventory in cartons, totes, cases or other storage media from narrow aisles. End-of-aisle lifts enable shuttles to travel between rows, and multiple shuttles can operate in the same row to increase throughput capability. Compared to other AS/RS solutions, shuttles offer the most efficient way to satisfy the growing demands of e-commerce distribution.

While AS/RS is a big investment, the current industry environment and the ROI benefits like these justify adoption more quickly:

1. Ease of finding, training and retaining labor

2. Reduced operating costs

3. Deferred need to invest in new facilities

4. Increased throughput

View the full webinar to learn additional details on how GTO systems driven by AS/RS shuttles can help you increase throughput by 500% or more, and overcome fulfillment labor challenges. 

New On The Move webinar | Offset labor challenges with AS/RS shuttle automation

Today's e-commerce retailers face a perfect storm of market challenges. While order fulfillment complexities are on the rise, the pool of qualified labor continues to shrink. According to a recent report by the National Retail Federation, the growth of e-commerce order volumes is expected to triple those of wider industry growth rates. This emerging e-commerce reality is forcing DC operators to look for new ways to deal with rising SKU counts of varying velocities and the subsequent inventory, storage and picking difficulties. 

In our next On The Move webinar, we will discuss how many retailers are deploying automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) shuttles to address the mounting pressures of e-commerce order fulfillment. This informative webinar will take place on Thursday, Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. EST / 11 a.m. PST. 

In addition to looking deeper into the forces behind this trend, we'll also explain how the rules of thumb for deploying shuttle automation is evolving - from its historic use of addressing inventory storage challenges to a more pragmatic solution to offset labor shortages.

To better understand how e-commerce growth is driving the need for greater efficiencies, we will compare traditional operator-to-goods (OTG) workflows to goods-to-operator (GTO) automation. While OTG represents a lower capital investment, it is often characterized by labor-intensive, inefficient and inaccurate processes. In fact, workers can spend up to half their time walking between pick locations rather than actually picking. For SKUs that are ordered less frequently in an e-commerce scenario, OTG might require an associate to walk five minutes to a remote area of the DC to retrieve them. 

In contrast, a GTO shuttle system would greatly reduce labor requirements and potentially eliminate much of this walk time. And although a shuttle system calls for a higher capital investment, it delivers significant gains in pick rates, order volumes and accuracies. 

Attendees of this webinar will learn:

  • Impacts of labor challenges on e-commerce order fulfillment processes
  • Overview and benefits of the GTO shuttle fulfillment model
  • How AS/RS improves fulfillment efficiency, accuracy and throughput
  • The various factors driving the AS/RS ROI equation

So, if you would like to learn how AS/RS shuttle automation can help address your labor shortages and improve order fulfillment productivity, please register for our next On The Move webinar and join us Thursday, Nov. 16 at 2 p.m. EST / 11 a.m. PST. 

10 steps to improve operational efficiency

As rising order volumes place increasing pressure on labor resources, e-commerce order fulfillment (e-fulfillment) center managers are always looking for ways to improve operational efficiencies. Compared to traditional distribution centers, these e-fulfillment centers require significantly more labor resources to get orders out the door, according to promised customer service level agreements (SLAs). 

To meet SLAs without cutting into profit margins, managers need to be able to quickly identify underperforming labor resources and process bottlenecks. In a recent On The Move webinar co-hosted by me and Mark Steinkamp, Honeywell Intelligrated's director of solutions development, we discussed 10 ways companies can identify operational inefficiencies and address them before they impact the bottom line.

1. Know your operation. Managers often overlook the value of regularly walking the floor to evaluate areas that are labor-intensive or where traffic may be congested. In addition to this simple step, more formal audits, metrics analysis and even business intelligence tools are useful to evaluating operations.

2. Train, train and train again. Regular training (and cross-training) on systems and processes or associates and management alike is critical to running efficient operations. Posting cheat sheets, documenting SOPs and establishing a "coaching" methodology are also training best practices. 

3. Put people first. To train, grow and retain employees, never forget that it's still a people-centric business where relationships are important. To keep labor focused on productivity, establish five key metrics as common ground. Then, reward top performers while discouraging unproductive habits. 

4. Keep an order fulfillment focus. With increasing order volumes and SKU types, give your operation the proper tools to meet the challenge. From regular MHE maintenance and system design evaluation to mobile devices and golden zone slotting, your goal is to create an environment that helps pickers perform at their best.

5. Improve customer service. It's a service-oriented industry, and even the smallest of details can make a measurable difference. Reducing internal backlogs and ensuring vendor compliance are two easy-to-implement examples of how to do this.

6. Remove barriers to success. Perform process analysis to track problems and and identify opportunities for improvements. Pareto charts are useful for uncovering extremes and determining where to make changes. This is not a "set-and-forget" mentality, but an ongoing process.

7. Raise the bar. Even after you've made improvements, it's important to not settle for a new status quo. Instead, always strive to incrementally improve results and raise the productivity of low-performing associates.

8. Review processes. You would be surprised how many e-fulfillment centers don't have proper process documentation. Once in place, these can be evaluated and updated for continual process improvement, or entirely revamped to incorporate new workflows or automation.  

9. Benchmark against your peers. Network within the MHE industry to gain insights and learn strategies that others have already successfully deployed. Engaging with your vendors and suppliers gives them opportunities to add value to your operations.

10. Assess the power of your system. Conduct a technology review to assess the efficiency of your MHE system. Is it delivering the throughput your operation requires? Then familiarize what offerings are available in the market place, and decide if an upgrade is necessary.

Even taking a few of these steps can quickly help your operations become more efficient. We urge you to view this webinar in its entirety, then reach out to us for more information on how we can help you meet your process improvement goals.

New On The Move webinar: 10 steps companies can take to improve operational efficiency

Challenging market dynamics like limited labor availability and the increasing demands of e-commerce order fulfillment (e-fulfillment) are placing extraordinary pressures on distribution centers, warehouses and fulfillment operations. As businesses invest millions of dollars annually to design, build and operate these facilities, they must also become skilled at quickly identifying when these challenges are impacting customer service levels or chipping away at profit margins.

In our next On The Move webinar - which will take place on Thursday, Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. EDT / 11 a.m. PDT - Luther Webb, Intelligrated's director of operations & solutions consulting, and Mark Steinkamp, Intelligrated's director of solutions development, will explain how companies can identify operational inefficiencies and address them before they impact the bottom line.

Compared to traditional distribution centers (DCs), e-fulfillment centers not only have significantly more orders to fill, but also require more labor - and up to four times the parking spaces as traditional DCs. With so much at stake, and so many resources to manage, maintaining operational efficiency becomes even more critical. 

Luther and Mark will begin their webinar by covering the unique challenges these e-fulfillment centers face, including:

  • Reducing order cycle times while increasing throughput and accuracy 
  • Dealing with SKU proliferation and the rise of each-picking scenarios
  • Managing inventory availability vs. inventory costs
  • Attracting, training and retaining a skilled workforce

To show attendees how to evaluate the effectiveness of their operation, Luther and Mark will discuss the importance of data and trend analysis around key data points, such as: product flow (and bottlenecks); available space; customer complaints and returns; interviews; organizational goals; and facility design capabilities. 

Luther and Mark will consolidate all this information into a 10-step approach designed to help operations identify opportunities for improvement today and in the future.

So, if you're ready to learn how to audit operational performance, improve training functions and streamline order fulfillment processes, please join Luther Webb and Mark Steinkamp for the next On The Move webinar on Thursday, Oct. 19 at 2 p.m. EDT / 11 a.m. PDT. 

Six benefits of robotic palletizing software

For decades, robotic palletizing technologies have provided an automated alternative for companies whose operational demands have outgrown the capabilities of manual processes. These robotic palletizing (and depalletizing) cells have not only helped offset labor costs and availability challenges, but also have enabled many manufacturers to keep pace with increasing order volumes. But to maximize operational efficiencies and address the demands of modern palletizing challenges - such as rapid changes in packaging designs, SKU proliferation and complex load configurations - software is becoming an integral part of robotic cell operation.

In our recent On The Move webinar, titled "Stacking up the advantages of robotic palletizing software," I explained how recent advancements in software are making the ownership of robotic palletizing cells more user friendly while accelerating their return on investment. What follows are the top six benefits of palletizing software that I discussed in the webinar. 

1. Flexibility in the hands of the end user - Robotic palletizing software has placed advanced programming power into the cell owners' hands, providing facility personnel with a wide range of features and configuration options.

2. Easily adapt and optimize operations when changes are introduced - Software enables end users to quickly modify existing patterns or loads and/or create new configurations as business dictates. End users can quickly search, store and share patterns for maximum operational efficiency. 

3. Reduced operator training and skill sets required - Intuitive software interfaces allow end users with a basic understanding of load construction to design complex load patterns without having to receive ongoing robotics training. 

4. Lower total cost of ownership - Software has enabled a much more self-sufficient robotic cell support model which has in turn lowered the cost of ownership. By allowing robotic cell owners to take programming into their own hands, software greatly reduces the need for vendor interaction or maintenance team involvement. 

5. Increased quality and performance - Whether it's the ability to simulate the integrity of a potential load design or the flexibility to optimize load sequencing at the required throughput rate, robotic palletizing software delivers the advanced tools and features to significantly increase operational quality and performance.

6. Improved implementation and execution times - Software reduces the implementation time of robotic cells, including setup, commissioning and testing. It also reduces the time required to make changes during operations and adapt to changing production requirements, such as creating, modifying or validating load configurations. 

While software advancements alone have enabled robotic palletizing cell owners to take more ownership of setup, configuration and optimization responsibilities, it's important to remember that software is just a part of the overall palletizing solution. A robotic cell architecture may be comprised of a laptop, personal computer, robotic controller and pendant, system level controllers and human machine interface. With such a wide range of solution types and integration scenarios, there is no one-size-fits-all solutions for today's diverse scenarios. 

To gain a more complete understanding of how software can significantly improve robotic palletizing (and depalletizing) programming efficiencies, please view this webinar in its entirety