Picking through the layers to uncover efficiency, accuracy

A layer-picking system can improve efficiency and fulfillment, but requires more complex systems.

By Derek Rickard, Cimcorp December 1, 2015

Global supply chains are elaborate orchestrations of precise processes that enable products to routinely move from point A to point B without a glitch. One of the more complex components of this logistical symphony is accurate order fulfillment. To maintain accuracy, productivity, and efficiency across operations, a variety of factors must be considered.

Physical space, square-footage costs, labor expenses, time, and coordination of efforts all provide opportunities for both potential problems and continuous improvement in a warehouse. As material flows from receiving through the warehouse, incidents can impact the accuracy and efficiency of orders—whether human error, the physical distance between SKU storage, types of products, or number of cases per order line.

Furthermore, consumer demands add to the difficulty of maintaining streamlined order fulfillment. Increases in order volume and SKU variety, as well as changing distribution channels with online and mobile ordering, have altered typical handling processes. These changes require implementing more complex systems and attaining faster turnaround on fulfillment.

Materials-handling and supply-chain experts are turning to automation to uncover efficiency, accuracy, and cost savings in the warehouse and distribution center to remedy these new scenarios.

Automated layer picking

Once product is received, orders can be filled with an automated layer-pick system that includes a robot, bridge structure, and software. The robot is a combination of a clamping tool and a large gantry that travels on two rails. Underneath the gantry is a staging area with a pallet of every SKU the company offers.

The layer-pick tool uses a warehouse control system (WCS) to communicate with the warehouse management system (WMS) and obtain order information, including SKUs, quantities, and picking sequences. The WCS then directs the layer-pick tool how to build orders and manage replenishment. Once the order is built, it is moved to the loading dock.

Technology in use

Layer-pick systems are ideal for food and beverage and consumer goods warehouses and distribution centers that move more than 1,000 layers/day with 50-500 SKUs picked in layer form. For example, a Canadian alcoholic-beverage distributor uses four robotic heads on two gantry frames to move 100 different SKUs, averaging 150 layers/hr with each system.

Alternately, one U.S.-based food manufacturer uses a two-head layer-pick system with 250 pallet positions to move 400 layers/hr. The solution works in conjunction with an automatic storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), which automatically provides replenishment products to the layer-picking system or store orders. When trucks arrive, single- and mixed-SKU pallets are collected, by layer, and easily moved to the loading dock for shipping.

A leading, global manufacturer of personal health and beauty products achieves a throughput of nearly 190 layers/hr based on an average of 30 cases/layer. Comparatively, in fully manual picking operations, each person can realistically pick between 90 and 250 cases/hr, based on any number of factors within the facility like the type of warehouse, distance between staging areas, and more. In this scenario, the average manual picking rate for each worker is 200 cases/hr. The layer-picking system, with two robotic heads on the gantry, can do the work of more than 30 people per shift, allowing employees to focus on other nonautomated tasks.

In total, this layer-picking system provides an estimated return of nearly $2 million/yr. This is a significant, direct impact on the company’s bottom line and a quick return on investment.

Looking to the future

By integrating an automated robotic layer-picking system, manufacturers, distributors, and supply-chain professionals can employ just-in-time order picking, increase efficiency, reduce labor costs, eliminate errors, and ensure traceability as products move throughout the facility. Furthermore, the use of advanced technology solutions automatically creates a repository of data relating to material-flow processes, order-picking efficiency, and productivity. By analyzing this data, warehouse managers can identify opportunities to further improve overall operations based on hard facts and data.

Derek Rickard is distribution systems sales manager for Cimcorp, based in Grimsby, Ontario.

Sidebar: Benefits

Among the benefits of a robotic layer-picking system are:

  • Labor and overtime expenses diminished
  • Less warehouse equipment needed
  • Operating hours cut back/more off-shift productivity
  • 100% order accuracy
  • Damage reduced with gentle handling
  • Smaller warehouse footprint required by using up to 50% less space
  • Improved loading efficiency through proper sequence of orders
  • Direct trailer loading
  • Higher throughput capabilities.

(Source: Cimcorp)