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Evolving Order Picking and Fulfillment with Progressive Automatization Solutions

By: Andrea Bodenhagen, Contributor

Suction cups with vacuum technology can be a useful end-of-arm tool for handling objects of different sizes and shapes. Image courtesy of Piab

What does shapewear have in common with mobile phone accessories, beauty products and LED bulbs? Or, washing machines, fridges, car parts and home building material? The answer is ecommerce. All the above items belong on the trending list of popular products ordered online. To keep up with this ever-growing market, logistics and distribution centers need to turn to flexible, universally deployable automation solutions.

Following rapid expansion in recent years, global ecommerce retail sales are estimated to be worth some USD $3.53 trillion. In 2019, ecommerce sales accounted for 14.1% of retail purchases worldwide. In 2023, the market research firm Statista expects the ecommerce share of total global retail sales to have increased to 22%.

In these challenging times when the market is rapidly changing its behavior and online sales (or ecommerce) is accelerating, fulfillment and distribution centers need to keep up with an even higher pace and demand. Hence, this rapid growth increases the demand for efficient automation in warehouses and logistics chains and is not only fostered by further increasing process speed, but also by the pandemic’s inherent necessity for social distancing.

Today, order picking is still largely manual and can take up at least 50% of labor cost in warehouses. Therefore, automation also provides a great potential for cost savings. Depending on whether the items to be collected are small, light and manyfold in a parcel, or a single heavy item, different automation solutions come into play.

Choosing the Right Gripper

For the former, a set-up of mobile device equipped with a collaborative robot is a common solution moving through automated rack storage systems collecting the relevant individual parts and assembling them for the respective shipments. Here the crucial point is the gripper, as it needs to be able to pick up all kinds of different items in different packaging material, without leaving any mark on the product to ensure that it arrives to the end user in a flawless state. Because of the variety of items being handled, a high degree of flexibility is required. A corset wrapped in a flimsy plastic bag needs to be picked up and transferred along a logistics chain as easily as a rigid gift box of shampoo and conditioner.

Application-specific grippers used in production for handling the same item over and over will not work in such a setting that would require numerous tool changes for packing just one single parcel of different objects. A more universal concept is offered by vacuum technology with suction cups as the final means of handling on an end-of-arm tool. Recognizing its vital role in a picking solution it easily becomes apparent that quality, characteristics and material are essential to allow picking of as many different objects as possible in a safe and rapid way.

And although suction cups look inconspicuous at first glance, it requires innovative strength and expertise behind their development. A one-pick-all-suction cup needs to have excellent sealing properties to reduce the leakage rate of difficult-to-seal surfaces (porous material such as cartons or difficult-to-cover surfaces like folding foil), and then still be able to operate at low vacuum flows / levels, which is one of the important characteristics working with a cobot application. And on the other hand, they need to be stiff enough to handle fast movement and to compensate for height differences of different products too. They should also be made of a high longevity material with great tear resistance to not wear out too quickly, reducing maintenance to the lowest possible level.

Employee Considerations

When handling single heavy items often two people are necessary. Sometimes the product is stored in cramped places where one person simply cannot manage the picking on their own. Then again, there is the problem of social distancing, labor costs and ergonomics (with associated costs for sick leave and the burden of having to reorganize personnel to cope with the daily tasks).

Here, vacuum technology based semi-automatic tools, such as lifting aids that enable lifting inside pallet racks or crowded areas, reduce the physical effort needed to move items. This allows the handling challenges with just one operator, while saving him or her from lifting in uncomfortable positions. This will effectively prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and create a safe and ergonomic work environment where everyone can lift without the need to be “big and strong.” And when one person can do the lifting on their own, operators can always easily maintain a safe social distance.

In case of mobile vacuum lift units that are compatible with standard LLOPs, an order picker can even be moved around quickly from pallet rack to pallet rack, allowing an operator to work independently to fulfill various shipment orders by him- or herself. This is important as like in all other parts of the logistics—flow speed is of the essence in the order picking process.

Speed also requires that any solution to help workers needs to be up and running without delay and easily integrated into the existing material handling flow. Nevertheless, optimizing utilization of space, storing goods in the best possible way for the fastest order picking possible remains an important prerequisite for successfully copying with the increasing demand of ecommerce shipments.

The trend toward higher volumes of smaller cartons and plastic bags of different shapes, sizes and weights, as well as the increasing number of white goods and other heavy or bulky objects ordered online poses challenges for the ecommerce, logistics and warehousing sector. Apart from being labor intensive and ergonomically challenging, manual pick operations struggle to keep up with demand. Equally and increasingly, even automated systems that used to work are becoming inefficient, with speed and accuracy suffering under the strain of greater order volumes and a wider range of different objects. Therefore, continuous improvement through progressive gripping, lifting and moving solutions allows logistics and distribution centers to constantly evolve their order picking and fulfilment solutions. WMHS

Andrea Bodenhagen is the Global Ownership Content Manager at Piab. In 2020 the company acquired TAWI, a leading manufacturer of smart lifting solutions with global reach. The former Piab Ergonomic Handling division is now merged under the brand TAWI securing an even broader range in ergonomic handling solutions. Piab is evolving automation through progressive gripping, lifting and moving solutions and has done so since 1951 (


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