Conventionally, order picking has occupied the high ground in warehouse costs and it is understandable that over recent years machine replacements of people have changed the face of order picking dramatically. The goals have been to reduce unproductive worker times by eliminating walking tasks and making their jobs far more accurate to eliminate mispicks which can be so costly in the reverse logistics function. But now, it seems, we are on the verge of an unprecedented robotic order picking boom driven by low unemployment and the demands of online shoppers where time-to-consumer is critical.

This article was first published in the February 15th 2020 issue of Warehouse & Logistics News, subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.
According to recent research by Interact Analysis who interviewed over 40 leading warehouse automation systems integrators, suppliers and end users, the growth in the warehouse automation market will be a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.6% to reach $46 billion in 2023. Remarkable though this is, even more eye-opening is the predicted 98.7% CAGR for piece-picking warehouse robots, thanks to continuing advances in machine vision, gripping systems and mobile navigation technology. A little less impressive is the 61.5% growth rate for AMR-based goods-to- person systems and 28.5% for very high density storage systems.

A good recent example in the trend towards ultra high storage density and fast, error-free picking is Knapp’s OSR shuttle system and robot technology to ensure that its client, Parfums Christian Dior, based near Orleans, delivers retail and e-commerce orders efficiently and economically (see story elsewhere in feature). Incoming loads from production are depalletised by nine robots before transfer into the compact OSR shuttle storage, which has 38,000 locations for cases, where some are opened before storage to facilitate single item picking. Retrieval of full cases for B2B orders involve robotic labelling and palletising in mixed loads. The robots’ image recognition technology and Knapp’s KiSoftPick master software enables the formation of optimised pallet loads for cartons of varying sizes. For B2C orders, the OSR retrieves an open case and transfers it to one of eight goods-to-person picking stations which have integrated weight checking.

Several picking automation concerns in the past have included inflexibility and disruption to business during installation. This should no longer be the case because the Parfums Christian Dior solution, for example, was implemented into the existing building during on-going operations without ever compromising customer orders. As for the inflexibility concern, Swisslog has been commissioned by Texit to supply an AutoStore solution in its Aarschot, Belgium warehouse. The reason for this investment is that it will guarantee fast and accurate delivery throughout Europe. The AutoStore’s 30,000-bin capacity, 18 robots and six work stations for picking tasks has a flexible and modular design that makes it possible to adapt and expand the system completely as desired.

Automated order picking can be complex and so there is obviously the concern over how unplanned downtime could seriously disrupt the key performance indicator of timely deliveries in an unforgiving online world. But there is good news here. Going back to the Interact Analysis research, this shows system integrators can look forward to growth in the more profitable service operations. More and more warehouse operators are convinced of the need to have service and maintenance contracts, a trend that seems more pronounced in the UK where service contracts are more common compared with German and American markets. Behind this promising outlook is the growth in e-commerce that demands higher throughputs and so puts more stress on picking systems. Neglecting this maintenance issue is not a sensible attitude.

Bill Redmond, Features Editor

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