Let’s face it, costwise order picking is a pain in the neck. Labour can account for 50% of picking costs and often around just 55% of an order picker’s working time is spent in an order picking area. There have been many advances over recent decades in materials handling kit to diminish this cost burden, like a wide choice in goods-to-man automated picking machines, while pick accuracy, once a key cost issue, has been greatly enhanced by pick-to-light and pick-by-voice systems. Yet another headache is workforce unavailability in a tightening labour market. It is becoming harder to find manual labour for warehouses as well as those who can service and maintain systems. This has even led some companies building distribution centres away from their optimal choice of location in order to find better access to labour. That, in turn, can adversely impact transport and environmental costs.

The growing problem of the labour element in the picking function has been made bigger because of how disruptive technologies, like the internet, have created a paradigm shift in logistics which places much more emphasis on item order picking to fulfil online shopping orders direct to consumers’ homes or designated pick-up points, an industry that in just a few more years could see online shopping accounting for as much as 60% of the total consumer spend. Inevitably, this points to much more reliance on best-ofbreed automated picking if current players in the market wish to survive. The big problem, however, is how to ensure that your automated picking partner supplier has the best solution for you.

This decision is a big exercise in itself because a great deal of potential investment money would be at stake, and there have been spectacular, automated warehouse failures for want of enough, relevant information and care. It would be better to stick with the large warehouses automation houses who also have their own, inhouse WMS software and who have a long track record of providing solutions in handling of products similar to yours. If looking to an omni-channel fulfilment to both stores and e-commerce customers, flexibility is a key requirement for efficient retailing.

Inevitably, big handling automation investments are costly so cost weighs heavily in selecting a quote but some suppliers, like TGW, would argue that it is the total cost of ownership (TCO) that should concentrate minds. The decision to buy a system should not adversely impact on what the operations personnel think of the solution.

One of the problems with robotic, single-item picking has been the inability to pick a wide choice of items from a tote or box. TGW believes its picking robot, unlike other systems, can handle many different item types, including rigid and soft packaging, and even deformed bags or messily arranged items within the tote.

Necessity is the spur in retail logistics and that means speed and accuracy to fulfil ever-more consumer demands. This clearly points to replacing all picking functions by automation, so that former human order pickers concentrate on packing and despatch. Fortunately, the kind of flexible, automated picking systems are already available from specialists like Cimcorp, and that new kid on the block of warehouse automation, Ocado. Both company offerings maximise storage density but Cimcorp accesses stock via linear robots on overhead gantries while Ocado also accesses stock from overhead but uses air traffic control and AI to coordinate hundreds of small robots zipping across a grid of thousands of crates to deliver goods to packers. Each robot in one installation travels up to 35 miles a day. Imagine a human picker doing that.