AMRs & Shuttle Systems in Picking and Replenishment

It is no secret that e-commerce continues to take a larger and larger share of total retail sales. Throw in a pandemic that forced millions of people and businesses to shop from home, and you will find that fulfillment centers, distribution centers, and warehouses are increasingly searching for methods to optimize fulfillment while minimizing how expensive that process can be.

For operations designed for more traditional case-or-pallet distribution, that process can be costly.

For instance, let us say a facility was outfitted with a large, three-story pick module with a 100,000 sq. ft. footprint. They formerly relied on forklifts to move a whole pallet of products from storage to shipping. Now, they see an increasing share of orders requiring just one or two items from that pallet, requiring a human to physically travel, find the item, and bring it back to packing, where it will be packaged and shipped. All of those new processes add up in terms of labor costs, packing, and shipping costs. Plus, order accuracy and fulfillment times are now in question. How does a company react?

After all, let us say in this example, the business is just emerging from a disruptive year and have this significant, fixed pick module asset that they are a little unsure of how to optimize their picking and replenishment processes, which are getting more expensive by the day. They see growth in e-commerce orders, but is it here to stay? Is making an investment in a fully automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) worth it? Are there alternatives?

Not many businesses can avoid facilitating e-commerce orders. Maybe the order volume or SKU variance is not as high in their warehouses as the nation’s biggest retailers. However, they still see an increase in fulfilling these orders. The answer may rest with a strategic investment in automated mobile robots (AMRs) and top-of-the-line software.

How AMRs Optimize Picking and Replenishment in E-Commerce Operations

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are becoming a popular solution to challenges stemming from the sudden explosion of e-commerce demand, primarily because they can move products within a facility without substantial infrastructure investments.

AMRs can travel, pick, transfer, and replenish warehouses across a nearly infinite number of SKUs with fantastic accuracy. With their diverse set of applications, they help reduce reliance on human labor and allow your associates to remain in critical locations and be dedicated to higher importance tasks than walking around a facility.

Some AMRs even bill as a monthly cost, so you can begin implementing them without affecting as much cash flow as a pick module would. Then they offer the flexibility to scale up with additional robots as your business needs change.

For those who have installed multi-level pick modules and boast small-to-mid-sized e-commerce operations, AMRs solutions can be a cost-effective solution to lower labor costs and increase throughput on e-commerce orders. With these solutions, businesses are not required to reconfigure their operations while running.

These solutions also remove the most significant obstacle facing the adoption of automation – that initial investment – by retrofitting into existing structures like pallet racks or pick modules. Because they can be integrated into your currently-existing facility, they can offer a return-on-investment on day one through cost savings and labor throughput.

How Shuttle Systems Optimize Picking and Replenishment in E-Commerce Operations

Around the middle of the 2010’s, shuttle systems – also henceforth referred to as automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) – began to be refined in European supply chains and have since made their way to the United States. According to the Material Handling Industry glossary, AS/RS is a generic term that “refers to a variety of means under computer control for automatically depositing and retrieving loads from defined storage locations.”

They are essentially bi-directional shuttles that are programmed to be packed with a product on a tote or cart, travel along a designated path, and then place the product into a high-density storage unit. When that product is ordered, the cart will automatically retrieve it and deliver it back to a packer, who then prepares the product for shipping.

These goods-to-person systems eliminate the need for massive pick modules and the manual process of your labor force walking and storing, then walking and picking, then walking the product back to a pack station.

By utilizing an AS/RS, companies can save a tremendous amount of time and resources involved with placing products into storage and then retrieving those items once ordered. Instead of having that worker physically travel to locations along a path, the worker can stay in one place while the machines do the intensive labor.

There are also crane-based and cart-crane-based AS/RS solutions, which you can read about here.

Which Set of Solutions is Right for You?

Both shuttle systems and AMRs significantly reduce the highest variable expense in the fulfillment process: labor time spent on walking. Both answers will ultimately deliver their ROI by reducing labor costs and increasing labor productivity, perhaps faster than you may think. The right solution for your operation will depend on how you go about bringing your goods to your people in the most efficient way possible.

Determining the proper course of action in adopting new technology and equipment should start with defining a strategy to get your business to its next stage. Taking a piecemeal approach can leave you with a suboptimal workflow, slower fulfillment times, and higher operational costs.

Our team of experts has decades of experience finding the proper storage and fulfillment solutions installed and integrated with a short-term ROI in mind and an eye on long-term growth for the business.

Give us a call and let us uncover your challenges and provide insight into solutions to help your operations adapt to the ever-increasing role that e-commerce has with your business.

Packing and Shipping Solutions for ECommerce

As e-commerce orders continue to comprise an increasingly more significant share of orders in fulfillment centers nationwide, warehouse managers continually evaluate practices to keep the costs associated with fulfilling these smaller, less profitable orders down.

The overall costs associated with packing and shipping e-commerce orders formerly were not a major concern because they made up a small percentage of total shipments. After all, many fulfillment operations have built their processes around shipping out full pallets or cases of products down the supply chain. However, as the rise of e-commerce continues to take over a more significant share of orders, it becomes critical to examine solutions that can not only lower labor costs but also increase fulfillment accuracy and speed while reducing shipping costs.

In taking a closer look at the packing and shipping elements of fulfilling e-commerce orders, there are efficiencies to be found. Look at the process of boxing, for instance. It is easily the most expensive part of packing because it is the most time-consuming and uses the most materials. Also, put yourself in the shoes of a packer; you are tasked with packing as quickly as possible. You have a product in hand. Are you going to try and fit that product snugly into an appropriately sized box, or are you going to select the larger box by default and move on to the next pack?

From a management standpoint, that means wasted time and materials, and now you will need to order more of the larger, more expensive boxes more often. This also translates to higher shipping costs due to parcel carriers’ DIM weight pricing strategies. Multiply that out by hundreds or thousands of packages a day, multiplied by the number of packers who are all making those same decisions, and you can begin to see why you should start evaluating how best to automate this process.

Automated Packing Solution – Sealed Air iPack

Think about all the additional waste that comes from a packing process, especially in a peak season with sub-optimally trained workers who are not as familiar or capable of maximizing an efficient technique. You’re looking at tape guns (which cause a lot of waste) or messy glue getting onto packaging. You’re looking at those larger boxes, which require additional void-fill (even more costs).

With an automated packing solution like Sealed Air’s iPack, you have a standard tray holding the product, which slides into the iPack machine. The machine then adjusts the box’s height based on its size and folds around the product. This automated process removes the need for dunnage or air pillows and eliminates the labor required to fold and shut the box.

By removing the folding, taping, and void-fill, you can already see tripled increase in throughput. There are also ancillary benefits like reducing the corrugate, tighter inventory of packing materials, less supply of packing materials, and ultimately less labor.

Plus, once the package is on the iPack machine’s line, no one must touch the box again physically. That means less room for error and more time for your people to work on higher-level tasks. Other automated packing solutions are available in the industry that may make more customized-sized boxes, but they require additional human touches. iPack is the only automated packing solution that does not require the extra touch. If you are looking at an automated packing solution for e-commerce, we recommend this solution.

AutoBagger Technology – Sealed Air Autobagger

All things being equal, packing and shipping with bags is a significantly less expensive process than packing with boxes or other containers – at roughly 25% the price. However, operational and labor costs add up over time by keeping this a manual process. There’s opening the bag, closing and sealing the bag, handling the load after it has been packed, and more.

Each of those steps may not look significant for one pack, but the typical manual bagging process is 75-100 bags per hour. With an automated autobagging solution, packing and shipping rates can increase to 150-200 bags per hour, meaning more throughput with significantly reduced costs.

For instance, with Sealed Air’s Autobagger, an operator scans an order, and the WMS recognizes the product, adds the label, and opens the bag. The packer then drops the product in the bag when the Autobagger seals the product in the bag. Then, the product is taken away for shipping. Automated bagging removes up to five steps per bag when compared to the manual process.

Plus, but using the one-size-fits-all bags, you don’t have to worry about ordering different sizes, keeping those stocked with proper levels of inventory, and you don’t deal with as much void fill or dunnage as you would by packing with boxes—your return-on-investment results from the increase in productivity and a reduction in labor costs.

Autobagger Technology – Sealed Air FlowWrap

Additional automated bagging solutions can quickly and efficiently pack more delicate products like pillows, rugs, or clothing, such as Sealed Air’s FlowWrap machine. This solution created ready-to-ship, custom-sized polybag packages, which can bag up to 1,800 parcels an hour. It is another solution that right-sizes the bags to closely fit the materials within, which similarly creates savings on throughput at material optimization.

The advantage of a FlowWrap solution comes to fulfillment centers that need to pack and ship a wide range of products and may only see one or two units per order. In this scenario, we estimate that a FlowWrap machine can perform at nearly twice the Autobagger solution rate, making it an excellent alternative for high-demand e-commerce fulfillment.

Automated Packing Solution – Sealed Air PriorityPak

If your fulfillment center packs and ships small cube products like electronics, books, or printed materials, a solution like Sealed Air’s PriorityPak may be an ideal automated packing solution for your operations. This system is a high-speed product containment and protective packaging solution that uses advanced sensor technology to create compact, custom packaging for varying packaging requirements.

Like the other products, this system is designed to reduce labor costs, improve order accuracy, and increase fulfillment volume. In most scenarios, the PriorityPak solution can create up to ten packages per minute, compared to traditional manual rates of packing one to three containers per minute. The result is as compact of a shipping package as possible, which reduces postage costs.

One unique advantage this solution offers is the additional protection that is inherent to the packaging system. The PriorityPak will encapsulate your products in a Cold Seal® cohesive protective packages that locks and seals products in place, which is ideal if you need your products to be secure or wear and tear from shipping the product could cause damage.

What Next? 

Integrating automated solutions into your operations does not need to be a complicated process, but it helps if you have an expert by your side to guide you through the process. If you are struggling to find, maintain, or lower your overall labor cost, one of the best places to look at is automated packaging equipment.

Our team of experts knows the ins and outs of these products and can connect you with the best solution for your business, depending on the unique challenges you face. With automated packing and shipping solutions, we can help you reduce labor and waste while increasing throughput at the same time. Give us a call today!

Food and Beverage Industry Storage

The food and beverage industry is a segment of our economy that nearly all Americans interact with daily. This industry is comprised of “all companies involved in processing raw food materials, packaging, and distributing them, including fresh, prepared foods, as well as packaged foods, and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages,” per Global EDGE.

It is a unique sector in that, to truly maximize profits from their efforts, firms need to be operating in a way that maximizes the volume of throughput. Traditionally, these facilities are working on relatively thin profit margins – some even as low as 2% — so they are required to find fulfillment solutions that allow them to pack and ship their products as quickly as possible.

However, as labor unreliability grows and pick accuracy requirements increase, many of these companies are at a crossroads when it comes to optimizing their fulfillment operations. They are evaluating the question: “Is it time to introduce automation?”

Currently, they may be utilizing a less expensive storage system, choosing to instead rely on human labor for their fulfillment needs. However, they may be evaluating mini-load automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) or pallet shuttle technology to help keep their costs-per-pick at a manageable level. However, automation can be expensive. Alternatively, some can look to goods-to-person fulfillment options that do not require infrastructure investment. The goal for these fulfillment centers is simple: maximize throughput and minimize labor costs to help increase their profit margins.

While the industry continues to evolve to keep up with ever-increasing expectations on faster fulfillment and order accuracy, some common storage types still emerge among the top food and beverage distribution centers across the United States.

Common Storage Solutions for the Food & Beverage Industry

Selective Rack

Selective pallet racking is by far the most common style of storage within food and beverage distribution facilities. Typically, in this industry, decisions are made quickly, and there is not much lead time on projects. Selective racking tends to be quicker to install than other racking styles, and it offers a more durable option, which is ideal in an industry that relies on forklifts to the degree that the food and beverage sector does.

While other integrators never change their specifications regarding their racking configuration, we have found a creative solution that offers some cost savings to our food and beverage partners. In storage racks that are several levels high, we often suggest that companies in the food and beverage industry use structural racking for the uprights and the bottom few beam levels – the ones used the most and most susceptible to forklift impact – and then switch to a roll-formed option for the remainder of the beam levels. Though roll-formed racking is less durable, it is also less expensive and thus can provide cost savings with little impact to functionality in this design.

Drive-In / Drive-Thru Racking

Drive-in and drive-thru racking are common in food and beverage storage environments because it adds a denser storage option than traditional selective pallet rack configurations. These racking systems allow companies to increase storage density by storing more pallets in a smaller area because they require fewer aisles from which to pick. Typically, that means up to 75% more space dedicated for pallets than a traditional selective rack. They are relatively less expensive on a per-pallet-position basis and are ideal for companies that rely on LIFO (last-in, first-out) inventory practices.

While this type of storage medium has been popular in this setting for years, we are noticing that fewer facilities utilize this style of racking as its primary storage means. As orders contain a smaller number of products-per-order, SKUs become smaller, and fulfillment times shrink because of quicker end-user expectations, facilities rely less on the drive-in and drive-thru racking as dense storage mediums.

Pushback Rack

Also designed primarily for LIFO inventory management, pushback rack is a dense storage system that allows materials to be stored within a lane, with pallets being pushed back as new inventory is added. Pallets are stored on a slight grade, so when a front pallet is picked, the design of the storage configuration allows rear pallets to gravity flow down the lane to be selected.

In food & beverage, when FIFO is managed using lot codes or date codes, pushback can be a solution to provide more density of storage while allowing for the maintenance of FIFO. Operating rules must be in place to support this approach, but it is often done successfully.

We have found that pushback rack systems are often designed for 2-deep or 3-deep storage for food and beverage storage and fulfillment centers. That makes the putting and retrieval faster and easier than in deeper 5-deep or 6-deep systems, which is critical in hastening the fulfillment process. Remember, companies within the food and beverage industry rely on throughput to maximize profits. So, as order profiles continue to get smaller with a wider variety of SKUs, this configuration supports optimizing the throughput of stored products.

Pallet Flow

Pallet flow racking offers additional storage density and labor savings when installed within a food and beverage distribution facility’s selective racking. Pallet flow consists of a back-to-back selective rack with lightly graded conveyor wheeled flow lanes installed on rails within the racking. This configuration allows back-loaded pallets to flow toward a pick face with the help of gravity to move the pallets from the loading side to the pick side.

Ideal for FIFO inventory management, this system ensures that picking aisles are always stocked, which means faster pick and load times for the facility. While other types of racking can hold between two and five pallets per racking configuration, pallet flow can facilitate between as many as twelve to fifteen pallets racks, depending on the system. Facilities can also customize the racks for optimal flow by designing the structure to the size and weights of their pallets, meaning pallet flow can be among the most efficient storage systems available for food and beverage distribution facilities.

It is also common in the food & beverage industry to see a combination of pallet flow on the ground level of the pallet rack with pushback on the upper levels. This approach allows for alternating pick aisles & replenishment aisles throughout the facility to maximize throughput from a picking perspective.

Mezzanines

Mezzanines are great additions to any warehouse or fulfillment setting because they are designed to create additional storage locations at both the floor and mezzanine levels. They can be designed to include multiple levels, adding additional pick locations with each pick level. Mezzanines are typically free-standing, rack-supported, or bin-supported, giving warehouses and fulfillment centers a durable solution to increase storage capacity without expanding their facilities’ footprint.

Platforms can be designed and installed at a fraction of the cost of expanding the facility, which is crucial to a business operating on already thin margins. They are custom-built to support the exact type of products stored within the facility and can genuinely increase fulfillment speeds when combined with a conveyor system that gives those who are not at ground level the ability to transfer their pick loads without traveling up and down stairs or an elevator.

Carton Flow

Carton flow systems have two significant benefits to food and beverage companies: improved picking speeds and increased storage capacities. Carton flow systems use gravity to push products through a pallet rack on roller tracks, meaning as an item is picked from the pick face, the entity behind it (usually the same SKU) is fed to the front, ready to be selected. These systems are often installed within standard pallet racks, with tracks installed on the beams with the assistance of hangers. They can be customized to fit multiple sizes, so different SKUs (and their respective packaging) can be accommodated, whether stored in cartons, bins, or boxes.

In the food and beverage industry, these systems are ideal for each picking, as it makes the picking process easier and quicker for pickers. Instead of searching a pallet for a particular product, carton flow can be installed on floor level with selective or pushback lanes above, giving better access to the quick-moving products while maximizing storage space & minimizing the amount of travel required to pick an order.

Pallet Shuttle Systems

In the food & beverage industry, it is common to have many pallets worth of inventory on hand in the distribution center for the fastest-moving items. It is also common to have a need for expensive temperature-controlled storage – typically cooler or freezer space. Pallet shuttle systems can be a great way to provide very dense storage while still accommodating fast fulfillment speeds. A pallet shuttle system utilizes a deep rack structure (often 25-30 pallets deep, or more) and semi-automated shuttles (or carts) to move pallets into the dense storage.

The shuttles can be easily moved from lane to lane or level to level within the storage system by forklift operators. The same shuttles are used to retrieve pallets and move them to the front position in the deep lane system to allow for efficient picking.

What Storage-Type Combination is Best for Your Food & Beverage Distribution Center?

As is typical with most distribution centers and fulfillment centers, the optimal storage configuration for your facility will be determined by your products, your order profiles, and your fulfillment strategy. If you are beginning to assess your facility layout, the best place is to evaluate your system and design your storage configuration around a dynamic fulfillment process. If you have a facility in place and are looking to optimize your capacity or improve your operations, you may need to establish your opportunities for improvement.

Either way, we’re here to help. Give us a call, and our team of storage and fulfillment experts can talk through your business goals and challenges, perhaps even touring the facilities to determine the optimal course of action. Our team has decades of combined experience in determining storage solutions that can relieve the challenges caused by labor shortages, suboptimal storage, and poor facility design.

Let’s get the conversation started today!

Implement Forward Pick Area

For the uninitiated, forward pick areas can be among the most impactful storage solutions for warehouses and fulfillment centers stuck in what we call “day one” simple pick processes. These warehouses have products in static storage configurations throughout the warehouse and an area for packing and shipping. When an order comes in, a worker physically walks to select the products and walks them over to the shipping or packing area.

It sounds simplistic, but this is an inefficient process for most operations and is the lowest level of picking that one could execute. When we hear companies say they are picking from floor-level positions to pallets or carts, we tell them they are probably going about their processes incorrectly.

Why? Because in an environment rife with labor challenges, an increasing volume of orders, and increasing operational costs, forward pick areas can offer solutions to the challenges warehouses are facing today. Without a forward pick area, workers must pick each product from the main storage area, and transporting it to packing is an inherently expensive process.

Instead, by using a forward pick area, popular products are temporarily stored in a storage medium like shelving bins or on carton flow, located closer to the shipping area. Then, the forward pick area is restocked in bulk with the products with a high order volume. The idea is twofold: by shortening the travel distance required for popular products, you can reduce costs and hasten the fulfillment time for the most significant number of orders possible.

You also benefit from a streamlined restocking process, with separate, dedicated lanes for replenishment of faster-moving SKUs and your traditional picks outside the forward pick area for slower-moving items. This configuration allows you to assign efficient pick processes for your new, fast picks, while traditional picking can continue for slower moving items stored in reserve storage.
Within the forward pick area, products are stored so that they can be easily picked and sorted using carton flow or pallet flow, depending on the order rates and the size of the products.

In certain situations where the cube of the SKU is appropriately sized, you can increase the number of pick faces per bay, which can drive pick efficiency with denser storage compared to configurations of static racking that may hold a pallet worth of product when you are only picking the equivalent of a few boxes worth of product per week. The ideal forward pick area should have a week’s worth of product available to meet forecasted demand. The higher volume of product needed, the more likely you will need to utilize pallet flow or another larger storage medium.

There is also an added ergonomic benefit that can come with a properly designed forward pick area. Instead of having pickers bend, reach, and try to select a product that may be in the back of a static rack. By using carton flow or pallet flow, products are ready to be selected easily at the front of the pick position, expediting the pick, and providing an element of safety and comfort for workers.

While some warehouses may have investigated forward pick areas and scoffed at the initial investment in racking, they may not be looking at the long-term financial outlook of their operations. The savings on labor and operational costs can provide a return-on-investment (ROI) more quickly than you may realize, especially when you consider the increased throughput that comes with reconfiguring your facility and operations to include a forward pick area.

If you are looking at increasing costs-per-pick, increasing order volume, or even labor challenges, give us a call, and we can talk about forward pick areas as a solution for your facility. We can look at the throughput of your operations and your facility design to build a quick roadmap to an ROI that showcases why you should consider this solution. We know there is an initial cost that can be a hurdle for some operations, but by reducing labor costs associated with expensive picks, we can help you determine how best to move forward.

Rising Share of E-Commerce Orders

In 2017, e-commerce orders represented about 10.4% of total retail sales, according to a study conducted by eMarketer. In 2021, that number jumped to 18.1%. That same study estimates that by 2023, more than 22% of total retail sales are facilitated online. With that massive jump in a relatively short amount of time, warehouses, distribution centers, and fulfillment centers across the supply chain are reacting and adapting their practices to accommodate this rising share of e-commerce orders.

Traditionally, warehouses have long been configured for pallet-in and pallet-out for shipping orders. However, both e-commerce orders and direct-to-consumer fulfillment require a completely different picking and packing process. These processes are more expensive for fulfillment centers that don’t have systems to handle e-commerce orders because they need a lot more human capital and labor cost.

While facilities are making changes to adapt to the e-commerce and direct-to-consumer explosion, some are left behind, wondering what the best course of action is for their operations. While each operation is unique, businesses can take a few actionable steps to adapt their existing facility to accommodate an increased level of e-commerce.

Tactic 1: Create a Forward Pick Area

According to Warehouse Science, a forward pick (or fast-pick) area is “[an area] from which it is most efficient to pick, but which must be restocked from a reserve or overflow or bulk storage area.” Essentially, you treat your static storage media as “reserve storage” and move specific products to a storage area, from which most of your orders are picked. This forward pick area needs more frequent replenishment than the reserve storage, but the flip side is that orders can be fulfilled more quickly.

The products stored in this area need to be the appropriate SKUs & stored in the proper storage medium based on the cubic movement of the SKU. If you decide to use the most ordered SKUs, they need to be stored in a larger storage medium to avoid excessive restocking of the forward pick area which could cost some of the efficiency you gained by creating this dedicated storage area.

Typically, the best practice is to use a warehouse execution system (WES) or workflow optimization software to determine the best SKUs to minimize your labor costs. Our team of experts has decades of experience matching the right software for your unique needs with our agnostic approach to vendors and partners for our clients.

Tactic 2: Evaluate New Storage and Picking Methods

Another way to adapt to changes caused by an increased level of e-commerce orders is to add systems and capabilities that allow for batch and zone picking. Vertical lift modules are a goods-to-person solution that can take small-sized products, store them in a high-density, low-footprint storage system and deliver them to pickers, who then assemble orders on a cart or take them to a shipping area.

Zone picking is good for multi-line orders because it reduces travel time for pickers, and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) are another goods-to-person solution to assist in these efforts. At a high level, AMRs can take the walking/travel element out of the picking process by moving the products from storage to a given location, be it a packing station, a conveyor, or just to an employee, who can then pick the items & package them together.

To a more considerable degree, automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) or other automation solutions that support goods to person picking can also reduce travel time and create more dense storage. However, these will generally come in at a higher initial cost than the AMR solution, which can be integrated without affecting your existing infrastructure.

Tactic 3: Automate Packing Processes

E-commerce and direct-to-consumer orders usually are not pallet-sized orders; they are parcel-sized orders. So, when a facility is accustomed to shipping pallets, how do you adopt best practices for these smaller orders? If the order is a single-line order, you could probably have the shipping team place a label on the item & ship it. However, what happens with multi-line orders?

Automated packing solutions exist that can accommodate a wide variety of consolidating and shipping multi-line orders. They can also accommodate potential requirements like polybags, dunnage, airbags, Styrofoam peanuts, and various other materials to keep packages safe from damage. By automating these processes – from right-sizing packages to physically loading trucks – you save a sizeable amount of labor costs that were not needed in a pre-e-commerce world.

Where Do You Go From Here?

If you have seen an increase in each or case picking, then give us a call. Whether you are adapting your current facility to account for increased levels of e-commerce or your manufacturing partners are considering a more direct-to-consumer strategy, having the capability to meet your customers’ expectations on fulfillment time and accuracy is essential. We would recommend starting at the design stage and finding a partner that understands how to optimize material flow and storage media. Of course, Storage Solutions has a team of experts on staff that can assist with these challenges.

Contact us today, and we can talk through your challenges, identify some quick wins, and formulate a plan of action. We may suggest dense storage, automation, or some other process-related plan built for your business. Depending on your needs, we may help without a site visit, but we may suggest one as well.

Either way, we should talk. Give us a call today!

inVia Robotics SSI Partnership

Storage Solutions is excited to announce a new partnership with inVia Robotics, a leading provider of automation solutions, that will allow the two companies to provide innovative solutions to challenges faced by warehouses, distribution centers, and fulfillment centers across North America.

As “The Amazon Effect” continues to challenge these facilities with quicker fulfillment demands, rising labor costs, and inefficient processes, the barrier to entry historically has been the investment that comes with adding infrastructure or reconfiguring an operation. inVia Robotics’ warehouse fulfillment solutions are designed to help clients meet today’s customer demand while maintaining the flexibility to adapt to tomorrow.

Their Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) subscription-based pricing model also allows warehouses to adapt their traditional pick modules and shelving units into a true goods-to-person picking environment without requiring a massive investment in physical infrastructure. inVia Robotics offers the only automation solutions that can back that claim.

This new partnership will bring forth three levels of automation to fulfillment centers:

Software Only. inVia Logic starts with software that optimizes the most inefficient and costly fulfillment task: picking.

InVia Picker. When you add robots to perform some tasks in a facility, you can automate select tasks – like picking and replenishment — prone to inefficiency and inaccuracy.

inVia Picker+. This option will upgrade your operations to automate all fulfillment tasks by adding workflows and warehouse locations, giving you full automation benefits.

The modular, scalable offerings mitigate the cost of change for warehouses, allowing warehouses to plan by pacing deployment as their needs evolve. When fully deployed, robots can retrieve all goods for each day’s orders overnight and consolidate them in one forward picking location. That means your human labor can do higher-level tasks like sorting and packing, rather than spending that time walking and gathering.

“When you optimize your operations, you can truly start to grow and scale your business,” explained Kurt Nantkes, Chief Revenue Officer at inVia Robotics. “Our business model is built on integrated, long-term customer relationships like these, where we can focus on supporting growth.”

“With our ‘simple, smart, strategic,’ approach, we can examine a facility’s operations and fairly quickly find opportunities for automation, bringing increased throughput and cost savings via lower labor costs,” explained Eric McDonald, Chief Customer Officer of Storage Solutions. “Our clients partner with us because they know we bring the expertise in storage design, picking and process optimization. We see this partnership as a huge value for our client base, particularly those who are interested in automation but unsure where to start.”

inVia Robotics was recently recognized by Frost & Sullivan as a 2020 Best Practices’ New Product Innovation Award winner for North America for the development of their goods-to-person robotics systems. Their solutions bring unmatched order, accuracy, and efficiency into your warehouse, translating customer demands into business realities. All these systems are adaptable and fully scalable, providing a return on investment on the first day the software or robotics are integrated.

To learn more about inVia Robotics’ warehouse fulfillment solutions, contact a Storage Solutions expert today and let us share how these integrations can help you introduce or expand automation in your operations.

Misapplied Drive-In and Drive-Thru Racks

Drive-in and drive-thru racks are popular dense storage solutions for companies looking to increase storage capacity within their facilities. Typically, these solutions are best applied in environments with a high volume of pallets stored on hand with a low number of SKUs.

The two racking styles are very similar in that they store pallets on rails, which are attached to uprights that create deep aisles of storage that allow forklifts to drive in or through the system to select or drop off a pallet. However, they differ in that drive-in racking requires the forklift to back out of the aisle (making ideal for last-in, first-out (LIFO) inventory management). In contrast, drive-through racking allows the driver to enter through either end of the system (making some people think it ideal for first-in, first-out inventory management). Operationally though, using drive-through racking for FIFO inventory often creates lots of additional product touches and adds cost. Drive-through racking also requires an aisle for travel on both sides of the system, making drive-in racking a higher-density option.

In suitable environments, these styles of racking can undoubtedly be beneficial. They can help support storage density efforts with a relatively low initial cost. In fact, in an environment where steel prices are not as volatile as they are now, drive-in and drive-thru racks are typically around a third of the price-per-position as other dense storage solutions like pushback rack, pallet flow, or the use of pallet shuttles. After all, there are no moving parts and no mechanical components in drive-in and drive-through racking; it is static.

But in the wrong environment, drive-in and drive-thru racks can lead to unforeseen expenses, slower fulfillment times, and poor utilization of cubic storage space. Ironically, these negative consequences were likely all the problems the evaluator was attempting to solve in the first place.

How does that happen? To start, evaluators are looking at the wrong bottom line.

Because drive-in and drive-thru racking is the lowest-cost dense storage racking system, a decision-maker will look at and their area and determine that they can fit the same number of bays of drive-in as, say, pallet flow. However, because the cost of the former is roughly 30-40% of the latter, they will default to choosing the cheaper option.

That low initial cost looks good to the decision-makers looking at a project as an open-and-shut project but not part of an overall operational strategy. While that initial bottom-line number is appealing, they may not be considering that cost-based decision may end up with a wrong application or poorly utilized storage system. Operational costs can soar when drive-in and drive-thru racks are misapplied. Dense storage design is better managed with a long-term approach with a more strategically applied solution.

The trick with drive-in and drive-thru racks: you want to keep utilization high, so you need to keep the same product in each lane – front to back and the top. Ideally, you want more than one lane worth of product for utilization purposes – filling the entire depth and height of the storage system – for each SKU being stored. But what happens when orders change and SKU proliferation hits? Now, you may be storing fewer of a particular product, a greater variety, and those dedicated lanes start getting SKUs mixed. Now you may have to turn, rotate, move-and-return other pallets to get a pallet you need to select, adding several more touches-per-pick and increasing your operational costs in the process.

Now, consider that drive-in and drive-thru racking is a popular storage solution for the food-and-beverage industry, where temperature-controlled storage is frequent. You have to figure in lot codes, date codes, and other requirements to maintain the product’s integrity. It can be a real challenge to manage these inefficiencies while keeping utilization high, operational costs low, and discipline to those codes.

How Do I Know if I Have a Utilization Problem with My Drive-In or Drive-Thru Racking?

The challenge with knowing whether your drive-in or drive-thru racking is operating at its fullest potential – or if another strategy should be considered – lies in the fact that you need to be looking for that magic utilization number to know if it is truly working for your operations (or not). If you are not actively seeking to maximize your space, you may not notice that you are underperforming.

However, if you have a significant share of drive-in or drive-through racks and are finding yourself in need of expediting your orders, or you are looking at adding dense storage solutions, give us a call first.

Misapplications of drive-in and drive-thru racking can cause many unforeseen expenses and slow down pick processes intended initially for efficiency. Our team of experts knows how crucial operational flow is to a company’s long-term bottom line. We know the challenges associated with rising operational costs-per-pick and have the experience to design and provide solutions uniquely designed to meet your needs, now and with an eye toward future growth.

Rising Prices Steel Extended Lead Times

For several months now, the steel market has experienced unprecedented volatility. Prices have tripled, demand is sky-high, supply is relatively low, and the result is striking the warehousing industry by causing delays and sticker shock on new warehouse equipment and construction projects.

As a real-world example, companies placing new steel orders could traditionally expect prices around $35 per hundred pounds of steel, with a lead time around six to eight weeks. That same steel order may now cost over $80 per hundred pounds of steel with a 24-week lead time in today’s environment. Part of the lead time delays are caused by the economy booming, and most facilities are busy, but the steel market has limited capacity to supply additional material to be available. On some of the larger projects underway, the prices have jumped by the millions of dollars, putting decision-makers in an untenable situation.

In some respects, this condition can be easily understood in an “Economics 101” sense: Supply is low, demand is high, so prices rise. We have seen that all before as part of a normal business cycle. However, the unique element in today’s economic situation is how long the prices have been high and how high they have reached.

Hindsight is always 20/20 and, while this level of volatility could not entirely be anticipated, it does beg the question: what are you doing to protect yourself from being at the mercy of a volatile market? How can you protect your operations from having to react to rising prices and extended lead times?

What Can Be Done to Hedge Against Rising Prices and Extended Lead Times?

Find a Partner with the Right Partners. When sourcing new warehouse equipment, we strategically partner with multiple different pallet rack and shelving manufacturers and conduct a sizeable business with each. Because we are among the largest purchasers of new warehouse equipment in the United States, we have developed several relationships, sources, and options to leverage our ability to help customers find the best fit for their needs. This approach can help skirt those lead times, issues with higher prices, and – in some cases – both.

Find a Partner Who Can Leverage Unmatched Manufacturer Partnerships. Because we have built long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with some of the largest pallet rack, shelving & mezzanine manufacturers in the USA, we have established foundational relationships that give us a dedicated production capacity to help fill the volume of orders we place each month.

In the current environment, almost every rack supplier is looking at 12-to-14 weeks or longer on any new equipment order (when, in regular times, typical wait times are around 6-to-8 weeks). In the right situation, we can leverage our orders to fit as quickly as a 5-to-6-week lead time, expediting that timeline by nearly half.

Find a Partner That Stores New Warehouse Equipment On-Hand. Besides sourcing new material for our customers, we have a 330,000 square foot warehouse based out of central Indiana that houses a good amount of new warehouse equipment. We typically stock uprights, beams, wire decking, and plenty of other options that work great for our partners when lead times don’t match our customers’ project timelines.

Find a Partner That Sources Used Material as Well. Not only do we store new warehouse equipment at our facility, but we also store and actively source quality preowned warehouse equipment as well. We have a Used Package portion of our website dedicated to larger orders of compatible equipment that showcases a good array of the products we source and store, which typically includes many popular manufacturer styles. If you are looking to sell your used equipment, you should know that we’re always looking to buy! (link to Buy Back form).

Find a Partner That Can Develop Creative Warehouse Solutions. Because of the current state of the steel market, the Storage Solutions team has been especially creative in terms of solving our clients’ challenges. Customers are more interested in holding onto their current material and re-using what they already have, so we are routinely developing project plans to keep them operational while re-applying as much material as possible. Even with companies conducting multiple facility moves, we can figure out a program from a logistics or planning perspective.

What is the Next Step?

If you are experiencing a situation where your project is beset by overwhelmingly high prices or equally challenging lead times, give us a call. We can learn about the challenges that face your business and develop solutions that support your short-term needs during times like this.

If you deal with extended lead times and do not have the luxury to push out the completion date or make massive budget adjustments, we can step in as a potential project partner. We have experts on our staff that can provide more material sourcing options and create a more dynamic project plan or design project initiatives to keep your operations running while the installation occurs.

National Safety Month

Each year, June is designated as National Safety Month®, an observation of safety and injury prevention across all industries in the United States. Administered by the National Safety Council (NSC), the month is a reminder to examine processes and procedures within your organization.

This year, the NSC is focusing on four topics throughout the month, putting a spotlight on mental health, ergonomics, building a safety culture, and driving. Through their website and social media, they will also produce materials including educational articles, infographics, videos, and more, along with posting free collateral on their website.

Storage Solutions will also be participating with a focus on safety in warehouses and distribution centers. That increased awareness of safety products and procedures will include both for your workers, but for your equipment too.

We will also feature information on products and services offered through our partners that serve to increase safety by reducing opportunities for accidents and injuries within a warehouse setting. Some of the products and features will also help adjust to a post-COVID-19 working environment.

As you continue to read and interact with stories this month, we encourage you to adopt a “safety-first” mindset throughout the year. Whether you need safety supply or service, we are here to help you make your facility not only move product as quickly as possible, but as safely too.

For more information on our safety solutions, click here.

EASY Automation Appraisal Requirements

As e-commerce represents an ever-increasing percentage of orders within distribution and fulfillment centers, warehouse managers evaluate automation solutions to combat the increased operational costs associated with e-commerce orders. In a warehouse or fulfillment center designed for traditional pallet storage and picking, those orders being fulfilled through each or case picking can add up and get expensive.

Currently, many of the operations we have worked with have responded to the additional e-commerce orders by “throwing labor” at this issue. What happens during peak seasons? Do you throw even more labor at it? What about if there are changes in ordering patterns? Do you hire and train temporary workers? That is where automation can come in and deliver solutions for these challenges.

However, it can be challenging to decide the appropriate level of automation for your current operations. It can be even more challenging to determine the proper level for you in 3 to 5 years. Do you integrate more now and deal with the cost today or slowly build a system and integrate it into your operations?

We created our EASY Automation Appraisals, where our team can take a data-driven, engineered solutions approach to determine the best plan of action for your facility. After all, each operation is different, and we want to connect you with the appropriate set of solutions, never to oversell or stick you with a system that you cannot fully optimize.

So, if you are at that stage where costs are rising due to an increase in each or case picking compared to your rate of pallet picking, your operation may be an ideal candidate for an EASY Appraisal. But what all is needed to conduct one within your facility?

  • Order Line Data – The most critical data for us.
  • Inventory On Hand – Historical data showing what all are you storing & how much of each item?
  • AutoCAD Layout of the Facility – We want to know where everything is at, as it stands today.
  • SKU Item Master List – We want to know what size your products are, how big their cases are, and what size pallets or cases are currently being stored?
  • Labor Rates & Outlay – How much are you trying to process, and how much does it cost to do it?
  • Outbound Shipping Requirements – Do you need poly bags? Does your packaging require dunnage?

Not all that information is technically needed – we have enough experience to work around virtually any roadblock – but having all that information will give us a clear understanding of what to look for in your operations. From there, our engineering team can tour your facility and see your processes in action ourselves. You can learn more about our EASY Appraisals here.

Are You Ready for an EASY Automation Appraisal?

The changes associated with fulfilling e-commerce orders are going to affect the structure of your business. It is a question of “when,” not “if.” If you are unsure how to adapt to those changes or adopt best practices with these systems, that is where we come in. These appraisals are designed to fit your needs now with a growth plan. We also offer a business case for how these additions can deliver an ROI within a few months or years.

Give us a call today to share more about the specific challenges you see in your operations and allow our team to develop custom engineered solutions that can help you combat those rising labor costs while increasing throughput and order accuracy.

Contact us today to schedule your EASY Automation Appraisal!