Ecommerce growth is driving a stampede of investment to support the development and implementation of advanced fulfillment center technology related to the fulfillment process. This is how Forbes recently summarized the condition:
Amazon announced it would invest $1 billion in warehouse automation solutions like robots and AI. To keep pace, Walmart says it will invest $14 billion in warehouse automation and other areas. Other companies are investing hundreds of millions into their own proprietary bots. Even for smaller businesses, the economics of investing in warehouse automation are clear. Robots are reliable and cheaper than humans.
Introducing new technologies in the fulfillment center to control and reduce the cost of the fulfillment process is not new. Some of the technology introduced in recent years to drive efficiency and lower cost include:
Fulfillment Center Technology Examples for a holistic view of your business
- Autonomous mobile robots: Move products from one location to another.
- Tech Stack Management Solutions: Stacked technologies that support a single application.
- Robotic Depalletizing: Automated solution for removing boxes from a pallet.
- Mobile Inventory Pods: Automated system that moves product containers to human picker (Amazon Kiva Model).
- Light-directed order fulfillment: Pick-to-light increases productivity and reduces pick errors.
- Order management software: Software that collectively manages order, product, and customer information to provide an overall view of the order process and drive efficiency.
- Dimensional sizing workstations: Drives full inner box utilization to reduce shipping costs.
While implementing advanced technology solutions drives efficiency and reduces per-unit processing expense, the cost of advanced technology is still a barrier to smaller fulfillment operations having the ability to implement such solutions.
The Automated Pick Process
Even with technology advancements specific to fulfillment center item processing, fully automating the product pick process remains capital intensive and a technology challenge for the e-commerce fulfillment industry and software developers:
- Picking multi-SKU products require a high level of mechanical dexterity: Robot dexterity can be defined as a robot’s ability to cope with various objects and actions. It is how robots can interact with and handle multiple different objects and take necessary actions on the objects.
- The fully automated pick process depends on the development of expensive and highly advanced AI software to drive the robotic pick behavior.
- It is not likely that a fully automated pick process will ever be developed to replace highly nuanced pick behavior, meaning the technology can only support the human pick process.
- Most robotic fulfillment models have embraced the Amazon Kiva model, where inventory-laden containers are brought to the human picker via autonomously operated pods. It will be difficult to merge the newer automated pick technology model with these existing, partially automated pick technologies.
There is no holding back the development of item sorting technologies, highly dependent on advanced AI, as investors are supporting this technology, and early adopters are beginning to implement the technology.
We don’t know yet how practical the solutions will be and how dependent the new product-pick solutions will still be on the human-pick component.