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The Facility Design Game Has Changed

The Far-Reaching Impact of e-Commerce
The fundamental shift happening in the fulfillment landscape has become a big concern. In fact, a lot has been published in the past five years about the rapid changes happening due to the ever-increasing acceptance of e-commerce. These include heightened expectations for faster turnaround times and shorter delivery windows, as well as fierce competition on all aspects of customer service.

All of us have been impacted. This is true whether our roles involve designing, engineering, and/or implementing new fulfillment center technology or operating fulfillment centers of increasing complexity and pace.  

Supply chain journal articles seem to ignore how the game has changed for designing solutions that effectively combat these evolving fulfillment challenges. Specific examples of creative uses for new and existing technology are hard to find.

This blog is intended to explore the notable changes in how we must approach fulfillment facility design. We’ll also review the skills needed to fully leverage new and emerging technology as well as the results you can expect to see from such an investment.

Major Advancements in Automation Technology
What significant technological advancements have led us to rethink how we design fulfillment centers? Though the specific examples are almost too numerous to list, they generally result from the introduction of low-cost, low-energy robotics, advanced vision systems, and innovative controls software. The resulting components and systems enable a much broader and more effective range of automation opportunities in today’s fulfillment centers.

A Look Back
Ten years ago, there were limited options when it came to automation. For split-case or piece picking operations,  these options required significant investment and a lot of fixed equipment that was difficult to reconfigure as business needs changed. Examples included:

  • Multi-order/cluster picking to smart carts, with lights to support the sort-to-order function
  • Discrete order picking to totes or shipping cartons from zone-routed pick modules
  • Batch picking with downstream sortation using put-to-light walls or high-speed cross-belt, Bombay, or tilt-tray sorters

Given the limited number of options available, the design process focused on how to get the most productivity at the lowest cost from the selected technology.

Major Changes Are Afoot
Today, new and emerging equipment and systems are everywhere, and companies are implementing them with increasing momentum. Some of the more interesting advancements include the following:

  • Robotic item handling has rapidly evolved on several fronts, including greatly improved vision systems to support identifying product dimensions and shape to direct the end effector (gripper) to handle items of varying shape, size, and weight. The grippers themselves have advanced, and many now incorporate “fingers” and suction to increase their capabilities. Machine learning enables robots to “remember” what they’ve handled in the past to improve the ability to handle similar items in the future. Likewise, the speed and nimbleness of robotic arms have increased the pace at which items can be processed.
  • Tote/carton-handling automatic guided vehicles (AGVs) can work alongside associates to put product away, replenish pick locations, pick orders, and transport picked cartons/totes to packing stations or shipping. These systems can boost fulfillment efficiency with limited capital investment and minimal disruption. They can effectively convert completely manual picking operations to semi-automated.
  • Small-footprint sort systems provide high-speed unit sorting capabilities to reduce the space required to support batch picking with a fully automated sort process. These small-footprint sorters work across a wide range of product dimensions (although not as wide a range as what tilt-tray, Bombay, or cross-belt sorters can handle).
  • Front-end picking modules for shuttle and mini-load systems provide extremely high pick rates through queueing up totes/cases to be picked from and supporting efficient sort-to-order tote/carton functionality.
  • Goods-to-person systems now offer highly automated picking with impressive pick rates and extremely dense storage for space-constrained fulfillment centers.  

Finding the Right Automation Technology for Your Operations
With the wealth of options now available, the determination of the technology and the role it will play within your overall fulfillment process requires two things: First, you need to have a thorough understanding of your DC’s challenges, constraints, and requirements. Second, you need a resource with up-to-date knowledge of the latest technologies, equipment, and systems that could be employed.

Many businesses seek outside help to accomplish these two critical objectives during their facility design project. When searching for the right partner, remember that a consultant/engineer must be properly trained to recognize which technology and equipment will most effectively support the work that must occur. This spans receiving, put away, replenishment, and fulfillment within the specific environment according to the business model.

Multiple technologies might be applied to different functions, customer channels, areas of the facility, and/or product categories. It’s very much like assembling a puzzle. The successful consultant/engineer needs to be able to choose the appropriate puzzle pieces and place them within the facility’s constraints to deliver the optimal design.

4SiGHT – Experts at the Ready
These capabilities are not commonplace in the consulting/engineering world. Yet, they are critical for truly optimizing a distribution or fulfillment center versus simply achieving marginal improvements. Today’s consultants and engineers are challenged well beyond those of the past yet possess the potential to boost operational efficiencies to heights that were not previously achievable.

4SiGHT’s team of expert consultants/engineers can help you make sense of the latest automation technologies and which will be most beneficial given your business’ objectives and budgetary considerations.

Contact us to get started.

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