E-commerce And Its Demands For Single Item Selectivity Driving Latest AR/RS Innovations

The latest innovations in automated storage and retrieval systems (also known as AS/RS or ASRS) are being driven by the demands of e-commerce and omni-channel retail, as warehouses and distribution centers (DCs) try to maximize inventory capacity, density and throughput while optimizing labor availability to deliver on customer expectations.

As explored in a recent MHI Solutions magazine article, “E-Commerce, Selectivity Spurring Innovation in AS/RS,” earlier generations of AS/RS solutions handled full pallets of unitized products, while mini-load AS/RS models stored and retrieved cases or totes of items.

Today, however, requirements for dense storage and high throughput of a far more variable array of products has prompted AS/RS suppliers to unveil the next generation of increasingly flexible shuttle-based systems that travel throughout the structure to retrieve products, as opposed to aisle-based systems with captive cranes for item access. Additionally, with more retailers experimenting with small-format DCs in more densely populated areas—where square footage is both more limited and more expensive than in facilities located in outlying suburbs—the need for flexible, scalable automated storage solutions that handle high volumes in compact areas has increased.

Further, with the proliferation of e-commerce orders calling for more selectivity of individual items, DCs need the ability to handle more cases (or totes) and at higher degrees of efficiently, to the point of handling individual items (single units of products within cases). Yet with available labor difficult to recruit and retain, many operations find it impossible to “staff up” to meet these demands—especially during peak seasons. AS/RS manufacturers have responded by de-coupling throughput and storage, instead finding ways to intra-connect automated systems in innovative ways to significantly reduce manual handling.

This shifting approach is evidenced by the increasing number of goods-to-person or goods-to-robot systems available on the market. With these solutions, the automation brings unit loads to robotic equipment or to a person for loose case picking. Alternately, individual case handling AS/RS configurations deliver opened cases or totes to a person who removes the required number of items ordered, and places them into a shipping box that then routes to pack-out prior to shipment to the customer. The source case or tote is returned to its assigned storage position automatically.

Other cutting-edge innovations in AS/RS applications include systems enhanced with augmented reality smart glasses. These wearable devices direct operators to pick certain items via visual cues displayed within their lines of sight. Another approach is to implement cognitive or collaborative robotics to pick instead of, or alongside, human operators for improved throughput rates and higher accuracy.

Want to learn more about the newest developments in AS/RS? More information about how e-commerce and omni-channel retailers are leveraging the latest AS/RS innovations can be found in a series of case studies shared by the Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems Industry Group of MHI.