Cognex’s recent webinar, ‘Warehouse or Storefront? Refine your Distribution Center for the E-Commerce Boom’, explained how some simple tech upgrades can help businesses of all sizes adapt their warehouse operations to capitalise on the spike in online shopping. Here, the company expands on the themes discussed.
With the COVID-19 pandemic driving consumers to online shopping at a greater-than-predicted rate, businesses forced to rapidly expand their e-commerce capabilities to match the demand can often face considerable growing pains. When a DC is geared more towards retail fulfilment than B2C, the technology that sits at the heart of the operation may no longer be the right solution. Put simply, a DC optimised to process cartons and pallets will struggle to fulfil single-item orders in an efficient, timely, accurate and profitable manner.
To overcome a slump in high-street store sales, retailers are now offering their entire range online, often with highly ambitious delivery promises to compete with existing online-only businesses whose warehousing operations are chiefly designed around single-item fulfilment.
The challenge store-based retailers face is that their DCs may not be correctly configured for the new logistics landscape into which they have plunged. The same DCs that have been optimised to efficiently despatch uniformly-shaped boxes and cartons to stores must now have the physical capability to receive, sort, pick, and ship non-cuboidal items to individual consumers. The point where the inefficiencies are most prevalent is the scanning of items as they pass through the warehouse to the point of despatch.
Barcodes located in expected places on regular cardboard cartons are easy to scan for most existing technologies, but the variance in barcode location, size, quality and format can lead to a significant reduction in an operation’s units-per-hour throughput without the appropriate vision technology. The situation is exacerbated by light glare and by the non-linear travel patterns of smaller items as they bump and bounce across belts and rollers designed to handle cartons.
Reconfiguring a traditional retail DC for direct-to-customer fulfilment comes with three significant challenges to the existing technology: product and code variance challenges; material handling challenges; and the challenges caused when new barcodes enter systems not designed for them.
FIX 1: Implement scanners that can handle different barcodes
While GS1 standards are the predominant standard for POS labels, general distribution uses different barcode standards for shipping labels. These can include 1D and 2D symbologies, even in one field of view. Unlike traditional laser scanners, image-based barcode readers decode a digital image and read any symbology. Digital cameras, especially those used for industrial purposes, incorporate different lighting options, filters and algorithms to provide fast and reliable results at any line speed.
In high-volume e-commerce warehouses, pick-and-pack stations equipped with overhead-mounted barcode readers are proven to be up to 30% more efficient, as they allow items to be scanned and packed simultaneously. In such applications, this equates to typical Return on Investment (ROI) of around six months. In these Covid times, it’s also important to note that fixed-mount readers eliminate operators from having to pass items hand-to-hand. Nor do they need to be wiped down for hygiene reasons between shifts, often saving hours when multiplied over a month’s worth of shift changes.
At goods-in, boxes are typically manually depalletised and scanned as they enter the warehouse. With barcode readers that can read both, POS and DC specific labels, this process can be automated. A scan tunnel for inbound logistics provides significant gains in throughput and efficiency. Data generated at this station ensures that inventory is accurate and up-to-date and facilitates vendor compliance checks.
FIX 2: Sort objects based on shape for automated material handling
The second challenge is the need for material handling equipment to transport single items rather than large packs containing multiple items. These smaller and lighter objects behave differently to cartons when conveyed, so existing line-scan equipment can struggle with tracking issues. Traditionally, this is very difficult to overcome unless the DC is equipped with an expensive dimensioning system.
Cognex, a leader in advanced machine vision and industrial barcode reader systems, believes its item detection system provides a cost-effective fix to such challenges. It is a motion-capable 3D smart camera used for dimensioning of both, regular and irregularly shaped items. It enables the sorting of packages based on either shape or size to be easily automated, and its packing optimisation capability ensures operators are filling or emptying totes in the most efficient manner. The reliable and low-maintenance system is easy to install and retrofit without disruption to existing operations.
This technology may be used in combination with a scan tunnel, and can assign the barcode to a single box even if boxes touch or overlap at high speeds on a conveyor.
FIX 3: Use smart data collection for process optimisation.
Edge intelligence combined with cloud computing provides powerful performance monitoring tools, showing read rates across the distribution network. It is capable of monitoring changes made to the system and rolling them back if needs be.
The technology can generate reports for one or multiple systems, can alert maintenance or engineering teams for preventative maintenance if read rates are falling, can enable the user to easily sort and classify no-read images for use in vendor compliance issues, and serves up all this data and statistics to the cloud using the popular and flexible MQTT protocol.
For retailers to best adapt to this new paradigm, they can either go to the expense and aggravation of creating separate fulfilment centres that only handle direct-to-customer shipments from online orders, or they can retrofit their DCs with technology that supports the larger variety of goods, packages, labels and codes.
Vision technology, such as image-based barcode scanners, plays a significant role in the speed and efficiency of warehouse operations, and is also an area where most gains can be found when seeking to introduce these POS requirements into your existing DC.