A variety of equipment and installation options lets operations customize their handling to match inventory profiles, customer demands.
October 01, 2015
Goods-to-person is blowing up. If you feel like you’re seeing and reading about growth in goods-to-person automation installations at every turn, you are not alone. This growth is being driven by e-commerce and omni-channel. E-commerce distributors need to fill more one- and two-line orders in compressed timeframes with a dwindling and aging labor market. Plus, omni-channel operations that fill orders for multiple channels—brick-and-mortar stores, wholesalers, home deliveries and parcel shipments—need to apply the appropriate goods-to-person solution to match the outbound order’s requirements.
Technologies once applied to store slower-moving, broken case inventory in a compressed footprint—such as automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), shuttles and horizontal carousels—have evolved to offer benefits beyond space savings for investment justification. New developments in those systems, along with new mobile robotic solutions, give operations more flexible installation and application options.
The latest developments
Gone are the days of an eight-figure dollar investment for a single AS/RS storing every stock keeping unit (SKU), with idle space left for future expansion, says Bill Leber, director of business development and marketing at Swisslog Logistics. Instead, systems have become more modular to support anticipated growth. That allows for more modest investment in an installation that meets today’s needs, but can easily scale up.
“Today’s installations are in the seven-figure range, and many times less than $5 million,” adds Leber. “No one technology can do it all; we’re seeing more hybrid systems with different types of goods-to-person automation in a single facility. You can match each technology to different inventory profiles and handling characteristics to create the right total solution.”
Leber also attributes the uptick in goods-to-person installations to their increased visibility in the market. “The technologies have become more mainstream and less of a high-risk investment,” he adds. “And, the cost of capital is extremely low, which makes net returns on invested capital very attractive.”
One of the first solutions offered in the goods-to-person picking realm was mini-load AS/RS, says Ross Halket, executive director of automated system design sales at Schaefer Systems International.
“Concentrating slow- and medium-movers from 20,000 square feet of floor space into a mini-load that takes 4,000 square feet, letting an operation increase pick rates from 80 to 120 lines per hour,” Halket says. “The maximum pick rate for a person is 1,000 lines per hour; a mini-load needs nine cranes to support that rate.”
That’s not to say mini-load (or unit-load) AS/RS isn’t deployed in today’s goods-to-person installations. Rather, most current systems combine multiple technologies to optimize flow—and using AS/RS to store overstock destined for manual and automated goods-to-person picking.
“Instead of delivering to the end of the aisle, an AS/RS automatically replenishes adjacent carton flow rack holding the fastest moving, manual-pick items, and the goods-to-person shuttle systems, too,” Halket explains. “Because shuttles are typically more expensive, they might hold three days of inventory, while 25 days worth is held in a mini-load.”
Matrix, Schaefer’s newest shuttle offering, incorporates multiple lifts throughout each aisle to eliminate end-of-aisle bottlenecks experienced by traditional AS/RS and to speed throughput. “Matrix lets a facility access any SKU from any storage point and deliver it to a workstation at any time, minimizing the number of waiting totes,” he says.
It’s also no longer the case that an extensive installation of conveyor or loop sorter is needed to move the totes from storage to people, says Lance Reese, technical solutions director for order fulfillment at Intelligrated. “Now, shuttles are more agile and come in a range of different flavors,” he says. “Some are carrier independent and can run on different levels, as opposed to being restricted to certain levels of a system.”
Kevin Reader, director of business development and marketing for KNAPP Logistics Automation, agrees, noting multiple shuttle design variations enable a range of uses within in a goods-to-person application—including storage, sequencing and replenishment, while simultaneously managing overstock, picking and returns.
“Shuttles can handle totes and cartons in the same system. We also install single-, double- and triple-deep load handling mechanisms in shuttle systems up to 18 meters (59 feet) high for maximum density with minimal productivity loss, because item locations are that much closer to the pickup and delivery stations,” he says.
Should seasonal spikes occur, multiple shuttles can run in a single aisle, Reader continues, or they can move from aisle-to-aisle and level-to-level. “The variants in shuttle design make these systems highly responsive and flexible to change. They’re also modular. So, if a shuttle breaks down, it can be replaced.”