Putting the ROI in Robotics: Task-Specific Warehouse Automation

Robotic fulfillment solutions are a hot topic right now. There are numerous YouTube videos out there demonstrating how merchandise racks are autonomously moving about in fulfillment centers, on the backs of tiny robotic transport vehicles. These robots are taking merchandise racks to their human counterparts for individual items to be picked, packed, and shipped.

Large merchants like Amazon would have you thinking that nearly all their fulfillment centers operate with robots that pick, pack, and ship their merchandise orders. However, that is not the case.  Human hands are still picking, packing, and shipping most e-commerce merchandise orders in both large and small fulfillment centers across America.

Having robot transporters move merchandise racks to the human picker is a proven technology and process that saves time, money and means that fewer people are needed to walk over ten miles per day picking merchandise for customer orders. The challenge is implementing costly infrastructure and technology upgrades in legacy fulfillment centers that, ultimately, may only result in automating half of the total fulfillment process.

Robotic parcel handling solutions are costly to implement and may only be worthy of the required capital investment in the highest volume scenarios. For most fulfillment service providers, it is more practical for fulfillment service providers to gain efficiencies and reduce costs by embracing lower-cost automation and process change best practices. Some of those automation / process change solutions include:

  • Order Management Software: Reliably advance order information, with fewer errors, in support of the pick process and accurately capture billing data per transaction to drive increased revenues.
  • Mobile Warehouse Barcode Scanning: FedEx started using barcode technology 40 years ago and nearly all order fulfillment solutions are employing barcode tech for both inventory and the order pick process.
  • RFID Based Product Location Technology:  An RFID tracking system is an invaluable tool. An RFID tag is attached to the items (or entire pallet) in that shipment. Each tag has internal memory on which an item’s information is stored and modified as it moves through different processes in the warehouse.
  • Real-Time Customer Info Updates and Messaging Capabilities: Fulfillment center customers require real-time info updates specific to inventory status and messaging on critical events. Numerous technology platforms from inventory management to WMS offer this.
  • Workforce/Labor Management Software: Your need to know how long it takes individual employees to complete tasks, to properly manage your costs. These software platforms can also help a service provider manage injury occurrences and absenteeism.
  • Conveyor Belts and Pneumatic Rollers: Moving product to the people versus people to the product.
  • Tech Stack Integration: Integrating technology/data from multiple sources and tech platforms.
  • Shipping Data Integration: Integrating shipping data with order management systems and ERPs.
  • Warehouse Management Software Platform (WMS): You cannot manage inventory without this technology.
  • Transportation Management Software (TMS): A must-have technology to automate shipping across multiple carriers and customers and employ rate-shopping capability.
  • Automated Packaging Technology: Automated box construction technology that supports the perfect fit for outer packaging and controls packaging waste.
  • Voice Picking Technology: Voice picking, also commonly known as voice-directed warehousing (VDW), pick by voice, and speech-based picking, is a paperless, hands-free, and eyes-free system that employs easy-to-understand voice prompts to direct warehouse operators to picking locations, and to instruct them in picking tasks.

Looking to the future, robotic fulfillment solutions will come down in price and support more complicated package handling procedures that today, are still done exclusively by humans. Until that time, fulfillment service providers must be embracing advanced automation and process change solutions to effectively compete in the ever-changing fulfillment arena.