How Small To Midsize E-Commerce Retailers Can Transition From Manual To Automated Picking

With all the challenges facing e-commerce retailers today, and consumer expectations for faster delivery times at no charge rising all the time, it’s become even more imperative for small and midsize online merchants to minimize costs and maximize throughput. One way to do just that is by transitioning from manual picking processes to those supported by automation. This topic was recently explored in a webinar presented by the Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems Industry Group of MHI, wherein a panel of speakers discussed “Going from Manual to Automated Picking for Small to Midsize E-Commerce Retailers.”

The 45-minute session includes a walkthrough of three key areas:

1. The Pros of Automation. Among the reasons to invest in automation for inventory management and order fulfillment is the ability to maximize storage space in a minimal footprint by utilizing the vertical, overhead space within a facility. Additionally, items in automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) are delivered to the picker at a waist-height position, utilizing the goods-to-person principle. This significantly reduces travel and search time, as well as improves ergonomics as associates no longer need to bend or stretch to reach items. Further, the transition to an automated system eliminates the need for wasted aisle space required for the navigation of forklifts and other material handling vehicles.

Some of the other automation advantages covered in the webinar include software-driven slotting for dynamic cube utilization based on pre-set parameters, such as item velocity, weight, and more. Typically, the presentation notes, manual picking from shelving or racks hits rates of 50 to 100 picks per person per hour, whereas pick rates in facilities incorporating AS/RS solutions range up to 1,000 picks per person per hour. Automated picking also boosts accuracy significantly, eliminating mispicks and errors that upset customers. And, automation enables order cutoff times to be extended, increasing the number of same-day shipments a small or midsized e-commerce retailer is able to handle.

2. Implementation Process. The webinar outlines five steps for implementing an AS/RS solution within a facility. These include a determination of current needs and future goals; review the operation with people on the floor as well as analyze metrics and key performance indicator (KPI) reports; choose an automation partner that will work with you to understand your needs and build a solution customized to meet them; analyze and design the system based on anticipated growth rate, as well as budget, size, labor availability and throughput requirements; and place the order having selected from a variety of options presented by the supplier.

3. Choosing the Right Technology. When creating the ideal solution for a given facility from among the variety of automated storage and retrieval systems—including vertical lift modules (VLMs), horizontal and vertical carousels, cranes and unit loads, shuttles, and cube-based—the supplier will seek to match the design to a variety of factors. Among them are the definition of the unit load (pieces, cases, totes, pallets) and its dimensions, the number of unique items to be handled, and the types of packaging materials used. Also important is ensuring that the software utilized in the facility and in the system will interface successfully.

The entire webinar is available for viewing online, free of charge, here.