With e-commerce purchases increasing every holiday season, retail warehouse operations are turning to cutting-edge fulfilment technologies to help seasonal workers cope with the flood of online orders and order picking.
For shoppers, holiday purchases that once started on the day after Thanksgiving now begin as early as October. According to forecasts from The National Retail Federation (NRF), consumers will spend upwards of $731 bn this holiday shopping season, including $167 bn (23%) on e-commerce purchases. Seeking to gain an early advantage in holiday sales, retailers are introducing deals (and inspiring demand spikes) well ahead of Black Friday, while Cyber Monday has transformed into Cyber Week.
For distribution centres, an extended season creates the challenge of meeting volume and service demands that start sooner and peak higher than ever before. As a result, supply chain leaders across the world are continuously seeking new ways to improve their fulfilment operations.
Here are three ways that technology provides an advantage over the legacy systems most commonly found across distribution centres:
1. PROACTIVE PLANNING FOR ORDER PICKING
Thanks to the analytic and forecasting capabilities of integrated commerce, warehouse management and fulfilment management solutions, distribution centres with cobots in place have robust planning tools at their disposal. Operations leads can put their teams and their fleet of cobots to the test months in advance by delaying order picking to create volume spikes similar to those seen during peak.
Information from these drills allow DCs to forecast volume projections, potential operation impacts, obstacles, and peak objectives well before the stakes rise during the holidays. The insights gained allow operators to determine what is needed to handle the increased volumes, and better understand labour and process impacts.
While it’s easy to focus on productivity benefits as measured by picks, this type of qualitative preparation is a critical element of peak season success, and an under-recognised advantage of collaborative robots. Modelling peak expectations alongside the capabilities of their fleet of cobots means distribution centres are better prepared not only for what they know is coming but more importantly, for the unexpected.
2. REAL-TIME FLEXIBILITY
The ability to flex up and down based on seasonal demand is an advantage that collaborative robots are uniquely positioned to deliver. With seasonal planning and the building already mapped out and operational, you can seamlessly add more cobots without any additional design or deployment (imagine trying to quickly install miles of conveyor and then ripping out and returning half of it on 1 January).
There may also come a point when there isn’t enough space in a warehouse to add more people or robots. In that case, fulfilment automation technologies can create additional efficiencies without crowding the floor. For example, batch-picked orders may be sorted into discrete orders using flexible sorting stations powered by the same AI driving the site’s cobots. The end result is that more products leave the building without the need to add people or equipment. Even better, as demand changes, these sort stations can easily be added or removed from the floor.
Cobots also provide flexibility for changes in workforce staffing. Seasonal demand means seasonal associates, and competition for manpower can contribute to unpredictable staffing. A hiccup in staffing levels can be disastrous. With cobots, it’s easy to adapt and adjust your fulfilment strategy based on real-time staffing levels.
Additionally, because some cobots can guide team members through the warehouse, seasonal associates are not slowed down by the traditional roadblocks of extensive training requirements. Whereas traditional RF picking systems can require weeks of training, a cobot can require as little as a few hours for associates to be fully trained and ready to go. Faster training extends the flexibility of the system itself into staffing and enables warehouses to quickly adapt to sudden or unexpected changes in manpower.
3. PRODUCTIVITY & ORDER PICKING EFFICIENCY
Through a unique balance of flexibility and intelligence, new fulfilment solutions such as cobots are especially well-designed to flex to high peak ratios. When waves of orders enter the cloud, they can be sorted and allocated according to the proximity of items within the order and the other orders in the system. As more orders are included in a wave, the better the FMS can optimise pick paths, ensuring that warehouse associates and their collaborative mobile robots are working efficiently and avoiding traffic jams. Combined with proactive forecasting of and system modelling for both orders and staffing, these capabilities help ensure that FCs can scale to meet peak demand, but also realise process improvements that empower associates, delight customers, and positively impact bottom line year-round.
As more and more warehouse operators realise they don’t need to settle for the status quo – traditional automation that is inflexible, costly and lengthy to implement – innovative solutions such as collaborative robotics (along with exciting new software and hardware solutions) will continue to evolve into the backbone of the modern-day fulfilment centre.