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How to Automate Your Picking Processes

If your picking is still manual, there’s room for improvement.

Contributor: MHI Solutions Community

One automated option, robotic arms, can be increased in number if more items are added to operations.

Picking can be one of the most labor-intensive activities in your facility, and if you’re still managing it manually, you’re likely losing out on valuable cost savings. This is especially true in today’s tight labor market, where almost every warehouse is struggling to recruit and retain workers. By unloading some of the picking tasks to automation, you need fewer employees, and the ones that you do have can move on to more challenging positions.

“Even prior to 2020, companies were struggling to hire enough people to fulfill picking jobs, and most companies have about 75-80% of the labor they need in this area,” says Brad Perry, Director of Sales for Warehouse Solutions at Fives Intralogistics Corp. “In large DCs, people are walking miles a day, weaving their way through the aisles and pick modules. There’s a high turnover rate and training costs associated with it.”

Mark Wry, a Systems Solutions Manager for Slate River Systems, Inc. (SRSI), agrees. “For most companies, labor savings is a big reason to automate picking,” he says. “Machines are great at doing the same thing repeatedly. Humans prefer less mundane tasks and automation frees them up for those.”

Automated picking also brings with it improved service levels and improved productivity. A pick rate is the number of orders you can pick in a period, usually an hour. When you automate, your machines don’t slow down, like humans might, due to fatigue. Automation also reduces the error rates that sometimes come along with human-driven picking. Put together, your pick rates can drastically improve, increasing throughput and savings. This is particularly true if you are operating short staffed, as most operations are today, and also important as fulfillment demand continues to get faster thanks to e-commerce.

“You’re at a competitive disadvantage if you’re not automating or in the process of automating your picking operations,” says Mike Smith, Industry Manager for Utz Group. “This is a huge efficiency issue.”

Despite all the reasons for automating, however, many companies let the initial cost of investment in automation keep them from implementing new solutions. “The biggest perceived barrier to automated picking is the capital it requires,” says Smith. “But there’s no question it pays to do it.”

Perry sees the hesitation, too, and makes the case that an ROI for investing in picking automation can be hefty. “Think about what happens when your labor is a no show,” he says. “Maybe your customers leave and go to a competitor because their shipments take too long. Think about the ROI you’ll receive from technology that’s always on the job.”

What automated picking looks like

There are various ways to automate picking, each as varied as operations. But most have a common theme, and that’s bringing goods to people rather than the other way around. This could look like automated retrieval and storage systems (ASRS) which uses the vertical space of a warehouse to store—and then retrieve—goods, bringing them to a picker stationed alongside the equipment.

Other options include ergonomic picking stations. “Workers stand on a mat with visual pictures telling them what to pick, or lights over a tote that tell them what to grab and put into the container as they build an order,” says Perry. “The nice thing is that if we ever have a need for social distancing again, this is an easy way to accommodate it.”

There are also robots like AGVs and AMRs that can bring goods to the picker, robotic arms, or even robot “swarms,” according to Wry. “The good thing with this model is that as you add more items to your operations, you can easily scale up by adding more robots,” he explains. “You don’t need any additional infrastructure. The bots can team up and queue up in specific picking areas. More importantly, the safety controls also continue to evolve, and new systems can tolerate intermingling with humans better than ever before. This further blurs the divide between segregated automated areas and traditional human ran processes.”

As the technology for picking evolves and advances, so too do the containers into which product is stored. By virtue of working with increasing varieties of automation in picking, the containers have changed and improved in recent years. “You have to understand the automation and how it functions in order to design the most efficient containers for the operation,” says Smith. “How does the technology pull from a rack, for instance? We build features into the container specifically for that function.”

Modern totes may have dividers inside them, for instance, allowing for multiple SKUs in one tote. “Say someone orders multiple colors of the same lipstick, for instance,” says Smith. “The picker can pull all of them from one bin instead of having to wait for multiple bins to come by.”

Today’s tote makers can also apply customized barcodes to adhere to the totes, and customers may request that they locate the barcodes in specific locations on the containers. In fact, barcode technologies have evolved from simple laser readers to full blown AI enabled vision systems “The biggest trend in containers is the specialization,” says Wry.  “For instance, we can make containers that are specific to the cold temperatures in refrigeration. Therefore, a company can dedicate less refrigerated square feet in a facility by utilizing refrigerated totes during inter warehouse transportation.”

While the initial investment in these new technologies and containers can be high, Perry says that you not only gain dependability and efficiency from automated picking, but equipment that can carry you well into the future. “We’re challenging our customers to think about the cost of being unable to produce at the level you need,” he says. “But when you add in the labor savings and gained efficiencies, the justification is there.” WMHS

MHI’s Solutions Community members are Industry’s thought leaders on automation, software, hardware, equipment and services that support a fully integrated supply chain. This includes suppliers, integrators, consultants, media, academia and users. They collaborate on solutions worldwide and in virtually every major manufacturing and distribution sector. Learn more at:

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