There are many technologies that fall under the category of automation, what they all have in common is they reduce the need for human interaction and they increase operational efficiency. Warehouses of all types employ automated processes in many areas, and with advancements in computing and robotics more automated tasks are being added each year. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the proliferation of many newer types of automation. This was based on a few factors: workers needed to be physically distanced to protect against the spread of COVID-19, the ecommerce industry had massive surge in direct-to-consumer volume that required higher throughput, and all industries were affected by a big labor shortage which left room for automation to fill in the gaps where workforce numbers declined.
There are many general benefits of using automation in fulfillment. They include greater accuracy and higher throughput of orders, plus less strain on workers. Here are some of the more common types of automation used in fulfillment.
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Print and Apply
A print and apply machine automates multiple processes: weighing the package, calculating the packaging dimensions, printing a label, and applying the label to the correct box. Print and apply is usually connected to order fulfillment software that corresponds to the inventory within a warehouse.
Labeling is an incredibly important part of the fulfillment flow. So many pieces of information need to come together in this step for the correct units to have the correct package details—including weight, dimensions, and destination.
Once the products for the order are picked and placed in the box, they are put on a conveyor belt which leads to the print and apply area. The package weight and dimensions are automatically taken and passed to the label machine.
The label holds critical information that tells warehouse staff where the box needs to go next—whether that’s to a staging area of the warehouse, to a specific carrier, or on a pallet that will go to another distribution center, retailer, or destination.
Some fulfillment warehouses still do the print and apply process manually. This means a person will select the box’s destination address on a computer (or enter the address into the computer). They will then click print, wait for the label to be printed, and manually apply the label to the box. They then must record (on a sheet of paper or in an excel file) the completion of the units being labeled and processed.
There is a higher margin for error when labeling is done manually than when it is done with an automated print and apply machine. By automating the print and apply process order throughput increases by 3x or more.
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Packing products into boxes is still primarily a manual job. It needs to ensure products are secure and presented perfectly for the exact unboxing experience that a brand wants.
There are however, some parts of the packing process that can be automated.
- Tape machines are now often automated. The only caveat to using them is sometimes custom box sizes don’t fit well within a tape machine.
- Carton sizing can be done by many modern software programs. They use dimensioning technology to optimize the exact right carton for each order which reduces waste and lowers transportation costs.
- Box building machines are common for high volume shippers who use the same box sizes. These machines can increase the output by a significant amount with minimal overhead to manage and operate.
Most of the fulfillment process involved moving items through a warehouse—automation has made it possible to move products higher and faster than with manual process.
Conveyance often refers to the use of conveyor belts which transport boxes through the packing and labeling parts of fulfillment. Without conveyor belts boxes might be manually carried or placed on a pallet and forklifted to the next place they need to be in the warehouse.
Other types of conveyance used in a fulfilment warehouse include forklifts, picking robots, automated guided vehicles, and any mechanized methods for getting products to various zones in a warehouse.
The benefits of using conveyance in a fulfillment warehouse include:
- Less strain on workers
- Increased order throughput
- Higher percentage of order accuracy
Technology has advanced greatly in the last few decades to include many automated picking methods. They are easily divided into two distinct categories: those that require manual picking, and those that use robots to do the picking which do not involve any (or very little) human interaction.
Manual or semi-manual picking
A very popular semi-manual picking method is called pick-to-light. It requires installing a software that integrates with an existing WMS (warehouse management system) to highlight (with a flashing light) the bin from which an item needs to be picked. The picker manually turns the light off by hitting a button or selecting “complete” on a tablet.
Automated picking methods like pick to light are most effective in the following environments:
- High volume picking
- Densely populated products
The biggest benefit of pick-to-light is that it can be entirely paperless. It often saves money and time, plus it is relatively easy to learn and train.
Two other semi-automated picking methods include voice activated and radio frequency.
“Working with robots and automated processes means we are better able to cope with the high peaks in volume.”
An even newer picking method that requires little or no human interaction is the use of robots. There are multiple types of picking robots, (and some co-bots, short for collaborative robots, that are used in tandem with humans) but the most common robotic picking method is the robotic arm.
Benefits of using robotic arm picking:
- Can safely reach higher shelves
- More accurate than manual and semi-manual picking
- Can work longer hours
Other robots used for picking include fast pick robots, Delta, and Cartesian robots.
How robotic arms are used in the DCL Logistics fulfillment facilities in this robotics case study.
If you are looking for a fulfillment provider with modern tools and an automated warehouse, at DCL Logistics we adapt and iterate when and where necessary to help give our customers a competitive edge. Reach out for a quote or to hear more about how we can help your brand scale.