Prior to COVID-19, companies were struggling to hire enough skilled workers to meet customer demands. Now businesses are needing to fundamentally change to continue operating and stay in business, but now labor has become a different type of constraint. This new constraint comes in the form of business struggling to be able to find enough labor to come in and fulfill order demand, while at the same time providing health checks throughout the day and limiting employee interactions.
Employees are wary of working in congested facilities and want to know that a workplace is safe and proactively taking preventative measures. Customers are also watching how retailers are ensuring safe work environments, and that shipments aren’t carrying COVID-19.
Companies must continually look for ways to capitalize on the demand, while limiting their exposure and risk from these labor constraints. Multichannel retailers are poised to continue to capitalize on this increased demand, as they already have the infrastructure to deliver to the end customer. Many of the options in this article allow companies to minimize the impacts on labor while at the same time dramatically increasing efficiency, throughput and accuracy rates.
Zone Pick and Pass Option
One of the most common pick methods in order fulfillment is cart bin picking. This method can be efficient for many businesses, but it often leads to congestion within the fast-moving SKUs, as pickers can cluster in these areas. An option to consider is a zone-based pick and pass. Pickers would be assigned a picking zone; a zone could be a specific hot pick area or grouping of aisles for instance.
Pickers would be responsible for picking all the units within their zone, and then “passing” those to the next zone for the remaining picks. If there are no other picks to be made, these picks would then travel to packing. The “passing” of picks is typically handled by totes travelling along conveyor, with scanning of the totes to deliver them to the zones where picks need to be made.
This option could support discreet order picking for certain item and order profiles, or batch picking of items which then get sorted down at putwalls. Larger orders for wholesale distribution and B2B can still utilize zone picking with conveyors along with diverts for building of the orders.
With workers staying within their zones, efficiencies are maximized, while at the same time reducing contact with one another and eliminating congestion points during the day.
Goods to Worker
Another option for increasing both efficiency and social distancing is utilizing goods to worker technologies. Many distribution professionals remember the older carousels that facilitated picking, these have been replaced by Vertical Lift Modules (VLMs) today. These have also greatly increased the cube utilization of facilities, which make them a great option for companies running into space constraints. VLMs utilize trays capable of supporting over 1,000 pounds per tray, with overall VLM heights from 15 feet, to well over 75 feet. The trays deliver inventory to a picking port for the worker to pick inventory.
From a goods to worker perspective, companies are also implementing technology such as Perfect Pick from Opex. This option utilizes bins which are delivered to a picking port. These systems, much like VLMs, maximize the cube within a distribution center – but greatly increase the picking efficiency over VLMs.
There are many goods to worker options available to companies, each of these can also act as a “zone” based on the previous Zone Pick and Pass. These options are very good at supporting higher throughput rates, with rates as high as 350-400 picks per hour, and allow for social distancing in a facility. From an accuracy perspective, these options provide strong inventory and order accuracy.
An area that has gained significant traction in order fulfillment is the use of collaborative robotics to assist with various functions. Companies have proven that robotics can have a major impact on throughput, efficiencies and accuracy. Some of the major players in this space include 6 River Systems and Locus Robotics.
Collaborative robotics are designed to work with an existing workforce, as opposed to completely replacing the workforce. For most companies, these options do allow for reduced headcounts in the order picking functions, which in turn helps with social distancing.
Robotics allow for multiple picking and putaway methods such as a “lead” approach, where robots lead the workers to the next pick, and the “follow” approach, where the robots follow the worker to the next pick for instance – replacing the need for a picker to pull along a pick cart. Other options allow for the robot to travel to the next pick where a picker interacts with the robot.
Once picks are made, or putaway is completed, the robots will travel to their next function – either delivering picked orders to a packing area or returning for additional putaway or replenishments. Other advantages include fast charging times, ability to operate over multiple shifts, elimination of conveyor in some operations, and very economical cost options.
While many options can't be implemented overnight, we have already seen how COVID-19 has fundamentally changed how businesses need to operate, and the impacts on labor. Businesses must continually invest in ways that allow them to continue to meet customer demands, while not being constrained due to labor. We hope that we can assist you with understanding various options, and how they can benefit your company.