The relentless march to warehouse automation, including order picking, continues apace here and around the world, driven by the growing complexity of supply chains and the increasing scale of omnichannel retail and ecommerce.

We’re all familiar with the sight of human order pickers running around warehouses wearing headsets and trainers, but as these businesses grow, these workers are increasingly being replaced by machines and redeployed in other jobs, in the interests of greater efficiency, productivity and accuracy.

This trend is particularly the case in large consumer goods businesses, including, ironically, sportswear. Puma, who make shoes, apparel and accessories worn by footballers, hobby sportspeople and professional athletes – not to mention on-trend warehouse operatives – have commissioned intralogistics specialist TGW to build an automated distribution centre in Bavaria. One of the largest orders in TGW’s history, the new intralogistics system is due to be completed in spring 2021. The 24- aisle shuttle warehouse offers a total of 730,000 storage slots, with 500 shuttles handling storage and retrieval.

SSI SCHAEFER is also actively transforming the face of largescale order picking operations. They recently developed a new logistics centre in the Czech Republic for the Brose Group, who produce components and systems for vehicle doors, seats and electric motors. The new, fully automated 5-aisle high bay warehouse has 9,750 pallet spaces and five storage and retrieval machines.

Another company helping operations migrate to automation, KNAPP is a leading global supplier of warehouse automation solutions, with over 1,700 active systems in place worldwide. The group’s advanced conveying, storage and fulfilment technologies have been combined in recent UK projects for John Lewis, Boots, M&S, Staples, Clarks, British Gas and Debenhams.

As this overview makes clear, for large scale operations, digitisation and automation are considered to be the solutions of choice to meet the ever-increasing demands on production, storage, transport and logistics. Even so, plenty of smaller businesses and warehouse operations still see employees as having a place in their processes and are content to employ human order pickers and support them with mobile order picking solutions.

Voice picking is an important part of this activity and achieves significant improvements in productivity and accuracy. Voice picking solutions span a wide range of picking processes and types of item. End users select the best technology to suit their order picking methods, equipping operators to prepare orders faster and without errors, to meet Service Level Agreements, deliver on-time and manage unplanned deliveries, even during busy periods.

Zetes, Voiteq and Lydia Voice, to name a few leading voice technology providers, are all convinced that for smaller operations manual processes will continue to be important in their logistics, providing the flexibility and speed required for just-in-time and same-day delivery. But ultimately as these operations grow, they will have to be realistic as to when they move to automation.

CHARLES SMITH

Feature Writer