schaefer-wln-july-09-adBy David Hibbett, Business Development Manager, SSI Schaefer.

Successful distribution operations is all down to well executed design, planning and implementation that takes full advantage of the space available whilst installing the most effective systems to ensure a smooth-flowing, efficiently run, lean working facility.

Perhaps one of the most crucial aspects of developing a new distribution warehouse or simply updating an existing one is in choosing the right systems – paying particular attention to the right picking system. The right picking system can make or break a business which is why, during such challenging global economic conditions, logistics operators have to be careful in the choices they make.

Ensuring value for money, a high return on investment, maximum system efficiency and effective system integration are today’s priorities for any logistics operators – the latter point being more poignant for those operators looking to extend the life of existing facilities rather than investing in new properties.

2009 has seen the deferment of investment into new facilities as a result of lower economic growth and investment into automated picking systems that work within current operations is set to increase – this is when the modular approach, recommended by SSI Schaefer, to system building and integration is so important, enabling a company to grow, change, adapt and invest in stages over time.

For example, the modular approach can start with the replacement of conventional shelving with deeper, carton live storage or flow racking, which increases storage capacity and requires a lower rate of replenishment. Phase two could be adding in a paperless picking radio frequency system, placing conveyors at either ends of storage aisles to take picked goods away from the storage area. This could then be converted to a pick-to-light system, introducing ‘automatic picking’, before adding in conveyors and an automatic storage and retrieval system to build up to a goods-to-man system. Finally a full, high-end automation system could be installed that provides automatic case picking and pallet building, product sequencing etc – see the Schaefer Case Picking System overview.

However, the objectives for using any type of picking system have not changed – every operator is looking for increased efficiency, higher productivity, system flexibility and compliance with Health & Safety legislation but priorities in terms of achieving those objectives have shifted as a result of global recession and pressure to compete for a shrinking market share.

One area that is bucking the current trend and experiencing a period of growth is the retail discounters and e-commerce operations with many looking for fast deliveries of practical solutions and systems to support new demands.

The role of automation in providing significant added value services and order / despatch sequences that reduce a company’s whole cost base is looking like becoming more prevalent in 2009 as the focus shifts towards reduced supply chain costs – although high-end fully automated picking system costs have to be weighed up against low-cost systems that are more dependent upon operator productivity, i.e. a goods-to-man picking system, which depends heavily on the ergonomic design of a workstation.

If a business operates a manual picking system and wants to move to a basic paperless system, the initial capital cost is low with minimal disruption as a result of no structural changes to the distribution centre. The long term benefit of this is increased speed and accuracy both in the distribution centre and further down the supply chain.

The main drivers for automated picking are faster reaction and cycle times, on-time delivery, same-day delivery, high picking accuracy, order fulfilment, manpower savings, store friendly picking, RFID, tracking, tracing, information transparency and visibility with a significant reduction in damaged stock.

Determining what picking system to install or upgrade to, an operator must look at the nature of the product, the volumetric and the throughput before deciding upon a system that will deliver the highest return in terms of efficiency.

Unit picking works well with the following systems; installing a paperless radio frequency system using hand-held terminals or scanners will generally improve speed and accuracy in close-pick environments for smaller items; voice-directed picking systems work well for larger, spaced-out items from pallets; pick-to-light offers a speedy, hands-free and accurate combination, guiding operators quickly and directly to picking locations – can be used in a wide variety of picking applications, from static storage to picking from goods-to-man automated systems, for example in combination with conveyors and automated storage and retrieval systems.

Case picking lends itself to the use of robotics at the high end of the automation spectrum. Robotic technology can be integrated to handle picked unit loads, full totes, full cartons, which do not have to be broken down or sorted and can be placed directly on to pallets by robots (therefore further reducing the cost of employing human operators). This has the added value of reduced transport costs by maximising pallet cube and product sequencing leading to reduced head counts in stores.

Different picking technologies can be applied to different product streams within a single distribution centre – see Office Depot Leicester for the perfect example.

SSI Schaefer Ltd
Tel: 01264 386600

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