Let’s face it, it’s a pretty exciting time to be in the distribution business!
Where automation is an old hat to manufacturers, retailers and certain distribution companies (you know who they are!), most mid-size or larger wholesale distributors are still getting along with early RF-based warehouse management system technology and labor-based order picking, while continuing to throw more people at their warehouse throughput and transaction cost problems. By the way, are you even measuring these critical success factors?
For many though, that old formula of walking material from one location to another is no longer working. New customer and market demands, especially those related to e-commerce growth, have put a premium on accuracy, order completeness and meeting aggressive order cut-off and delivery times. Add to that labor shortages, rising labor costs, and the difficulty in retaining a reliable workforce, especially in multi-shift/extended shift operations, which are becoming more common, as a way of meeting overall service and regional/geographical market penetration objectives. This requires “speed-of-flow” thinking.
Particularly over the past few years, MCA Associates has expanded its consulting practice focused on working with clients to develop distribution operating philosophies designed to achieve this speed-of-flow, from receiving and put-away to order fulfillment — pick-pack-stage-load-deliver. The approaches which many of our clients have chosen to successfully adopt, include:
These may be new or advanced concepts to many wholesale distributors. But yet, there are some wholesale distributors, we are fortunate enough to work with, who are even looking beyond these methods in terms of how they can be further leveraged.
So, the big question: Are ‘bots’ in your future?
So yes, I’m on a mission here! I’ve been trying to begin to answer the questions: “Are robots ready for primetime in your distribution center? Are they ready to play a role any time soon?” From what I’ve researched and observed so far, there appear to be applications in wholesale distribution, where, I believe, there is an opportunity to scale the implementation of robots to smaller companies. No longer does this topic have to be just about the Amazon’s and the Walmart’s of this world.
Is automated picking, like that pictured above, immediately on your horizon for you? Probably not.
But maybe the setup below is.
Or how about this one below?
The logic of this new reality
How might this all work?
It goes like this:
A ‘bot’ meets a warehouse associate at a storage location. The warehouse associate picks the product, puts it into a tote, scans and confirms the pick on a tablet computer attached to the robot.
The ‘bot’ then travels autonomously through storage/pick zones, stops at the next required pick, and allows assigned zone picker(s) to make the pick, load it to the ‘bot’, and report the pick. The ‘bot’ then moves autonomously on to the next pick location (could be to a different warehouse associate, depending how the pick zone is staffed), while the picker remains in their zone. The ‘bot’ travels to a packing/staging area if the picking from that zone is considered complete.
Robots do the travelling and transport. No more picking carts to push around! Need more capacity due to seasonal or time-of-day order peaks? Assign more ‘bots’ to the zone.
Now, for receiving and put-away, think about it in the reverse. Receive against the purchase order or maybe it’s a stock transfer being received, load the ‘bot’ and send it on its way to the appropriate storage zone where zone warehouse associates put it away in the designated storage location via the same tablet device! The ‘bot’ then returns to the receiving area.
What’s been accomplished here under both scenarios? An absolutely dramatic reduction in walk-time, generally accepted as 70 percent of total pick or put-away time! Look at your number of line items picked and/or put-away. Tremendous opportunity, isn’t it? Absolutely more time on task for each warehouse associate!
Honestly, I forget exactly where I heard this, but it seems like a perfect example of “robots empowering people”, doesn’t it?
I will be closely watching developments in these robotic applications; how and where they could fit into your distribution operations. Consider this article as just a first installment. What I do feel confident about is ‘bots’ don’t only have to be for the big guys.
Heads up: There are pre-requisites. Some prior/basic process transformation and/or infrastructure changes in your warehouse maybe required to make it all possible and avoid operational disruption. So, I suggest you next read “Drive Your Distribution Center/Warehouse Performance Assessment” available on our website at www.mcaassociates.com.
This is the next major development in the wholesale distribution warehousing, so keep watching!