Equipping Pickers with Automated Technologies Creates Tangible Benefits

As the grocery industry continues to evolve, managing supply chains and moving products within refrigerated and frozen food warehouses becomes even more complex.

Developments in the industry are causing executives to shift their focus toward the layout, speed, flexibility, and productivity of their distribution centers to determine what additional investments are needed. Meeting evolving customer interests and expectations is becoming a competitive differentiator in the grocery industry and many refrigerated and frozen food processors are changing their business practices to directly address this opportunity.

One solution gaining in popularity is automation.

New technological advancements, including lower-costing sensors, are making automated forklifts, autonomous guided vehicles (AGV), and mobile robotics equipment more practical for use in certain warehouse and distribution applications. While the promise of a fully automated facility remains on the horizon for some, converting to full automation is still a distant possibility for most companies.

However, companies can easily pair low-level order picking operations with automated technology to manage mixed pallets, improve efficiency and productivity, and possibly improve employee retention.

As it stands, the low-level order picking process, typically consisting of nine steps per pick, is inefficient.

1. Pick up a case
2. Place on the pallet
3. Walk to the front of the pallet truck
4. Step on the pallet truck
5. Drive the pallet truck to the next pick position
6. Step off the pallet truck
7. Walk to case
8. Pick up a case
9. Place on the pallet

As one of the most resource-intensive warehouse processes, low-level picking is a prime candidate for automation. But, in some industries, such as the frozen food warehouse, the complexity of the picklist and existing infrastructure could make the shift to full automation difficult.

One automation solution that works for many low-level order pickers is focused on the operators themselves, enabling them to do their jobs more efficiently, while reducing physical stress.

Four of the steps in the nine-step picking process involve moving the forklift down the aisle to each pick location. This results in extended pick times and increased physical stress. Not only do operators have to continually mount and dismount the forklift, but the picking method can cause them to repeatedly circle the forklift, extending pick times even further.

Equipping operators with a wearable, wireless device that enables them to remotely advance the forklift without having to touch the vehicle, leaving steering and obstacle detection to advanced onboard sensors, reduces operator movements by 44 percent, which can create substantial, long-term benefits.

Eliminating the need to step on and off the truck to drive it down the aisle enables the operator to adjust his or her picking pattern to a z-shaped pattern, working from the rear of the forklift. This minimizes the distance that operators must travel, eliminates steps on and off the truck, and reduces physical stress.

The truck’s onboard sensors and steer correction keep it moving straight down the aisle until the end of the aisle is reached and the operator steps onto the truck to drive it to the aisle containing the next pick location. Unexpected obstacles will stop the truck until the operator removes the obstacle or manually drives the truck around the obstacle.

When this technology is combined with other process improvements, operators can reduce picking time by up to five seconds per pick. If an average operator completes 100 picks per hour, a five-second reduction in pick time can result in as many as 13 more picks per hour with less physical effort. This 13 percent productivity improvement can reduce both labor challenges and warehouse costs, and possibly avoid the need to expand facilities or build new ones.

By implementing automation in the low-level order picking order process, companies can streamline the overall process, reduce the number of operator steps, picking time, and operator fatigue and create a platform for meaningful improvements to labor standards.

Other improvements that can help deliver even more benefits when implemented alongside wearable technology are establishing one-way traffic flows, maintaining open aisles, and implementing z-shaped picking patterns.

Scalable automation technology can provide an attractive path forward for warehouse managers looking to make incremental improvements. Forklifts controlled by wearable technology can provide productivity improvements with a much smaller capital investment than with full automation while providing a more immediate return on investment.

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