The face of warehouse order fulfilment techniques will change dramatically over the next few years as the remorseless rise in online shopping, estimated to eliminate 40% of all UK retail shops over the next five years, makes itself felt. How warehouses will react will depend on their ability to see the threats from inertia and make the right investment decisions. These decisions will inevitably involve some forms of automation and the abandonment of paper-based picking.

Home delivery is already a huge factor in the changing face of order picking and over the next five years Swisslog expects the volume of product being delivered to be similar to today, whilst the number of orders and order lines picked will increase significantly. Whereas before a carton of 100 items might be picked for delivery to replenish a retail shop, this will more likely change to 100 item picks for home delivery. The warehouse, therefore, must be able to support both case picking and item picking, along with a transition between the two. It is, therefore, imperative that automated solutions are designed to cater for this trend.

Technologies that are likely to have an impact on automated warehousing over the next couple of years, opines Dematic, will be those that can provide solutions for maintaining high customer service levels in multi-channel operations – particularly those that have increased their e-commerce volumes rapidly. These technologies include multi-shuttle systems, which although not knew are still very much an emerging technology and the uses to which they are applied are constantly evolving. Interlinked with shuttle technologies are the high productivity ‘goods to person’ stations, which allow picking rates above 800 lines/hr per operator. Both of these items are ideally suited to single item picking and therefore internet retailing.

Picking solutions such as voice, conveying and pick-to-light are also thriving and these provide an entry level development route for smaller companies on a growth path, allowing them to start with a relatively small investment in automation, such as voice picking, then gradually to warehouse management software before stepping up to a small conveyor system. Voice technology will not offer the pick rates of a pick-to-light system but it will offer a cost effective means for very accurate and fast hands-free picking. Pick rates will be higher than using hand-held computer or paper-based picking methods.

The payback for paperless voice picking can be justified in various ways and systems suppliers suggest that 12 months is not an unreasonable time frame. One justification was a 65% cut in picking errors for JD Williams’ voice system supplied by Dematic. Customer returns caused by sloppy miss-picks are a cost nightmare for any warehouse and risk losing customer business permanently. Another Dematic-supplied customer, Chain Reaction Cycles, the world’s largest online bike store, achieved a 50% improvement in order picking through a voice-picking, packing, conveying and WM system.

Once these relatively inexpensive investments have delivered a quick payback thenthe ground may be laid to take on more ambitious automated conveying, and undoubtedly the movement is towards ‘goods to person’ systems. Such investments deliver far more than just more accurate and faster picking of single line items to fulfil e-tailing orders.

A good example is Swisslog’s Autostore designed for light goods solutions. It is a good fit for multi-channel operations because it is both highly efficient and adaptable for future requirements. It can cope with a large range of throughputs, including over 3,000 order line/picks per hour, and is easily extended by adding robots and pick stations.

Currently, Swisslog is providing AutoStore for Asda’s Lutterworth central distribution centre and one of the key concerns for Asda was to improve the use of space within its existing distribution centres. AutoStore makes this possible because it relies on highly dense storage served by robots on the top of the grid to store and retrieve in a ‘goods to person’ operation. This picking operation maximises ergonomic picking efficiency and allows up to 60% more goods stored in the same space as a conventional warehouse.

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