Industry Market Trends

Faster Fulfillment through Automated Goods-to-Person Picking and Storage

Jul 09, 2014

Goods-to-person picking and storage systems, when combined with smarter workflows and inventory management sytems, benefit both plants and warehouses with significantly better picking times and accuracy, speeding fulfillment and shipping. This type of automation also improves worker ergonomics and productivity.

Throughout the retail, distribution and manufacturing sectors, competitive pressures are driving the demand for faster, more-accurate order fulfillment. Consumers everywhere are demanding faster access to the retail goods they purchase - with next-day delivery having practically become the norm and same-day delivery and in-store pickup on the rise. Similarly, for many manufacturers and operators of industrial processes, demand is growing for near-real-time access to replacement inventory and spare parts to ensure uninterrupted operation.

To meet this customer demand, a growing number of distributors and centralize inventory management warehouses are seeking improved warehouse management. The goal is to use a combination of automation technologies and improved workflow processes to reduce the time required to pick, pack, and ship items.

A variety of automation technologies are available to improve both the speed and accuracy of the picking process. When such dynamic storage systems are coupled with improved workflow procedures related to order fulfillment, picking, and shipping, facilities are able to drastically improve picking times and accuracy - often enabling next-day delivery with later daily cutoff times. This improves overall inventory management within the facility and boosts customer satisfaction.

New Tools, New Strategies

The use of automation efforts related to parts picking and order fulfillment can yield the following improvements:

Improved Worker Productivity. By bringing products right to the picking personnel, automated picking systems reduce time and effort compared with manual search-and-retrieve efforts. They thus significantly boost picking efficiency, worker productivity, and overall throughput rate and volume at the facility. Specifically, the use of automation can increase picking rates by as much as 800 percent while reducing labor requirements. As a result, staff size can be reduced, or workers can be reassigned to other value-added operations, such as packing, shipping, and quality checks to ensure accuracy.

Improved Picking Accuracy. Today's software-driven automated picking systems can also improve picking accuracy (to above 99 percent). This speeds order fulfillment and allows for later cutoff times each day without compromising same-day and next-day delivery guarantees.

Improved Space Utilization. By maximizing the use of underutilized overhead space from the floor to ceiling, today's dynamic storage and retrieval systems can reduce traditional floor space requirements by 65 to 85 percent. In many cases, this newfound space can be used to add inventory, bring existing inventory that is currently stored off-site back under the same roof, or for other revenue-generating activities.

Improved Working Conditions. Automated picking systems are designed with the worker in mind. Not only do they help to reduce arduous foot travel throughout the day, but the automated carousels that are at the heart of these improved systems feature an ergonomic design that presents items to workers at waist height.

Increasing Accuracy to Reduce Mispicks

An estimated 35 percent of facilities experience ongoing mispick rates of 1 percent or more. Although 1 percent sounds like a slim margin for improvement, the error rate adds up quickly. Kardex Remstar provides a worksheet allowing facilities to calculate the true cost of a mispicked part. While most fulfillment operations understand mistakes will happen, very few have taken the time to calculate the true cost of those picking errors and how they impact the bottom line.

Most order fulfillment operations utilizing operators to manually select products to fill a customer order experience picking errors. That's because humans are prone to making mistakes. Picking involves much more than grabbing an item off a static storage rack or shelf. In the typical manual distribution center, picking means an operator receives a paper list of instructions about what to pick and where, travels to the correct storage location, locates the correct item within that storage location, picks the items, confirms the pick by marking the paper, then delivers the items for packing. All of those steps are fraught with potential for error.

Automated goods-to-person storage and retrieval systems -- such as horizontal carousels, vertical carousels, and vertical lift modules (VLMs) -- deliver items directly to an operator, eliminating walk and search time as well as fatigue. In addition to delivering items directly to the operator, automated storage and retrieval systems can be equipped with light-directed picking features and inventory management software thatboth negate human error. Operating on the "goods to person" principle, automated storage and retrieval systems deliver the correct part directly to the worker at an ergonomic height. Workers can use the time saved to pick more parts and fill more orders accurately and on time.

Light-directed picking technologies have evolved into complete message centers that communicate to the operator the precise area within the carrier of the item to be picked, display the part number or description, pinpoint the exact location, direct either picking or storage, and indicate the required quantity. Not only do these devices dramatically reduce picking mistakes, they also lead to happier customers who are more likely to buy again.

To achieve the highest degree of picking accuracy, integrating inventory management software with an automated storage and retrieval system enables smart functionality such as inventory monitoring. In addition to keeping track of the contents stored within the machine, the software also interfaces with a facility's warehouse management system (WMS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. This function allows managers to closely monitor stock levels in real time -- and potentially eliminate physical counts -- for better inventory control.

Manual order fulfillment operations take on the risk of picking mistakes due to human errors every day. With light-directed picking and inventory management software, human mistakes can be nearly eliminated, reaching up to 99.9 percent picking accuracy.

Horizontal carousels, vertical carousels, and VLMs and optimization strategies are available to help warehouse operators overcome the limitations and inefficiencies of the manual approach. And because these technology options are essentially modular in nature, today's automated systems can be phased in over time. This gives warehouse managers great flexibility in terms of managing expenses and training issues and in analyzing ongoing results to both fine-tune optimization efforts and analyze return on investment (ROI). That provides a win-win situation for all stakeholders.

With these technologies in place, the retail, distribution, and manufacturing sectors can meet customer demands and the competitive pressures driving them.

Top photo credit: Kardex Remstar

KardexRemstar, LLC, a company of the Kardex Group, is a leading provider of automated storage and retrieval systems for manufacturing, distribution, warehousing, offices, and institutions. For information about the company's dynamic storage solutions, call (800) 639-5805 or visit