Introducing Automation Can Reduce Employee Turnover

We hear from our clients that labor is the biggest challenge in their business every day. In particular, labor availability and turnover are often mentioned as issues companies are desperate to find a solution for.

The costs associated with employee churn add up in a tangible way for fulfillment and distribution centers. On average, the total cost of a warehouse associate is roughly $50,000 per year (a $20-per-hour wage at 2,500 hours per year), and the average cost of replacing that associate is roughly 25% of their total cost.

In a warehouse that employs 100 associates, those costs start at $500,000 per year. Then you should consider the costs of training new employees, onboarding, unemployment taxes, and additional overtime required to keep your operations running at the desired rate.

While labor appears to be the problem, here at Storage Solutions, we believe employee walking is the most detrimental activity in a warehouse. Though there are management-level and HR-level tactics to reduce turnover, we can’t ignore the reality that no one likes walking around a facility for miles every day. In addition to walking, manual pick processes are rigid on your associates’ physical well-being. With so much competition for the labor out there – and competitors constantly offering slightly higher wages and signing bonuses to warehouse workers, why would an employee continue to work for you?

Automating your pick process can drastically improve your employee’s job quality, so they aren’t interested in going elsewhere. By introducing goods-to-person picking technology, for instance, warehouses:

  • Essentially eliminate walking from the job. You automate the picking and delivery of a product from storage to a place where your associate can be stationary at a pick station and conduct their business, rapidly expediting the picking process and keeping your employees from manually transferring packages across long distances.
  • Give your best employees higher-level tasks. Employees who are loyal to your company can be rewarded by focusing on higher-level tasks than walking. No one wants high levels of labor intensity when they can be using their brains more than their feet.
  • Reduce onboarding and training costs. If you are operating a 500,000 square foot warehouse storing a high volume and variance of SKUs without automating your pick process, it takes a while to learn which product is stored in every location. When employee churn is high, it can lead to a slower pick speed and a higher number of inaccurate orders.
  • Improve accuracy and nearly eliminate costs of inaccurate orders. An automated solution can dynamically learn where products are stored and deliver goods with nearly-perfect precision. These solutions help your bottom line by increasing fulfillment speeds and reducing product returns. It is estimated that each return costs up to $50, which adds up quickly in high-volume fulfillment scenarios.

How Can We Help?

With automated solutions, you reduce your reliance on manual labor and unpredictable labor markets. Storage Solutions has formed partnerships with several of the industry’s most dynamic, innovative, and creative technology providers and has the operational experience to implement the right solution to meet your business goals.

We take an agnostic approach to learn your unique challenges and provide options with return on investment in mind that help you scale as your needs change.

Click here to let us know how we can best assist you, or give us a call today, so we can learn about your challenges and begin to develop a roadmap to help you grow faster without relying on the dynamics of the ever-changing labor market.

7-automation-solutions-to-support-ecommerce

There is a rapidly growing market for interest in automation solutions, especially in response to the COVID-19 crisis that has reshaped supply chains globally.

Before the crisis began, businesses of all types were slowly shifting to support e-commerce. However, when the pandemic hit, that shift suddenly forced those interested in these solutions to re-evaluate if automation was required to meet customer demand. With the recent acceleration of e-commerce demand, many fulfillment centers need to incorporate automation to a higher degree.

To meet customer demand – where the time between order and delivery expectation is shorter than any time in history – warehouses need to change. Warehouses that are not fully prepared for this rapid rise of e-commerce often rely on an excessive amount of labor (including additional overtime), missing ship dates, and do not meet customer expectations on order accuracy or fulfillment times, all while confronting an ever-increasing volume of SKUs.

The pain points are all building up for those who have not yet adjusted. In those cases, how does one respond?

Some businesses start from scratch by building new facilities, while others are looking to adjust by retrofitting under their current footprint. These companies are looking to increase storage density, reduce time and costs, and achieve higher throughput capabilities by introducing automation into their processes.

Several solutions help warehouses and distribution centers stay competitive and thrive in today’s changing world. Below, we have highlighted seven automation solutions we have seen be useful in these efforts, no matter what level of automation your facility currently has implemented:

Solution 1: Goods-to-Person Picking with HAI Robotics

HAI Robotics ActionHAI Robotics is an intelligent, efficient, and flexible automation solution that utilizes a combination of HAIPICK robots, customizable storage units, software, and workstations to create a robotic goods-to-person picking workflow in a warehouse setting. These robots can handle up to eight cases simultaneously and reach heights up to 33 feet, increasing operational efficiency by up to 4x while also increasing storage density by up to 130%.

This solution replaces the repetitive, time-consuming costs of manual storage and handling and introduces a goods-to-person technology that can drastically improve fulfillment efforts.

Solution 2: Goods-to-Person Tote Handling AS/RS with Opex Perfect Pick

Goods-to-Man Tote Handling AS/RSHigh-speed AS/RS tote handling solutions offer scalable goods-to-person picking that improves the speed with which orders are picked, increases order accuracy, and reduces labor costs related to the picking process. It is a low-risk solution for those looking to introduce automated solutions into their operations. An additional benefit of this solution is that an operator can customize either the software or the system quickly if needed.

These systems offer high-density storage both vertically and horizontally within the system with robots that deliver products to a packing station or workstation for further fulfillment. It utilizes put-to-light technology that offers a high degree of accuracy, even with high volumes of order picking.

Solution 3: Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)

Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)AMRs offer a wide variety of benefits, including facilitating complex fulfillment, zone picking, each picking, case picking, maximizes labor, reduces labor costs, and can be designed to be scalable, flexible, and adaptable to nearly any fulfillment process. Because they do not require massive investment or even a WMS, on-demand automation solutions like AMRs are becoming adopted widely, especially for those looking to make low-risk introductions into automation.

Solution 4: Handle Complex Product Mixes with EffiMat® and ClassicMat™

Effimat-in-ActionEffimat® is an ideal solution for fast-moving products and small parts but can also increase fulfillment efficiencies with slow runners. The technology can determine the speed with which to pick the order. However, ClassicMat™ is constructed to be the ideal handler for slow runners and can prevent the parts from lowering the speed of the order.

By combining the two technologies and using their intelligent software system, users are ensured highly efficient storage or production environments that can handle complex product mixes.

Solution 5: Put to Light Tables/Workstations

Put-to-Light TablesPut-to-Light systems are an automated sortation method to break down larger product quantities into smaller individual orders. Known as the “scan and sort method,” this order fulfillment method takes items that are usually batch picked beforehand and transports them to the put station. The operator will scan a bar code on individual items, and the lights will illuminate with any customer order including that product. This technology solution will increase productivity as it reduces the time associated with searching for the put location. By the time the operator is done, the next product is already waiting, meaning it is a nonstop picking environment where workers are never waiting on automation.

Put-to-Light offers the same hardware devices and software as pick to light, meaning you can utilize both systems on one platform. This process will be beneficial when it comes to training new employees to use this technology solution. This system’s primary goal is to give you the ability to pack and ship more orders in less time while reducing errors.

Solution 6: Mixed Use of AMRs, Pick Modules, and Conveyors

AMRs and Conveyor CombosWe’ve touched on the integration of AMRs in conjunction with pick modules in addition to (or in place of) conveyors here. In short, by using this solution, you are shifting the work of your labor force to more valuable tasks. Like many automated solutions, it lessens the pick process’s length and gives you a flexible, scalable solution to adjust as e-commerce continues to grow.  Click here to learn more about this solution.

Solution 7: Introduce Automation without Massive Infrastructure with inVia Robotics

inVia Robotics ActioninVia Robotics offers a “crawl-walk-run” approach to introducing automation with their PickMate, Picker Robots, and PickerWall solutions. Users can integrate robotics at your scale, ultimately improving productivity up to 10x while seeing a return on investment on day one of implementation.

inVia is the only technology that can create a goods-to-person picking environment out of an existing pick module while not requiring massive infrastructure changes within your facility.

Their unique robotics-as-a-service (RaaS) and software-as-a-service (SaaS) subscription models offer an ideal place to start automation because the subscription model removes the massive capital expenditure from the equation

Which is Right for You?

Which is the right solution for you? Will you need a WES/WMS system? Do you need a partner to help you consider using an engineered solution in the future?
There are several factors distribution centers need to consider, not only to meet today’s demand but also to facilitate growth and adaptability for future unforeseen changes in fulfillment expectations.

We have the design and expertise to partner with you through the decision-making and implementation processes. Give us a call today!

Unprecedented Volatility Blog

To describe the 2020s thus far as “unprecedented” would be an understatement.

For the early part of this decade, various unforeseen and mostly unpredictable forces have tested the world’s supply chain, from sourcing material to delivering it to the end-user. Already adjusting to the acceleration of the direct-to-consumer model, the supply chain has endured COVID-19, labor shortages and unpredictability, and unexpected economic and political factors around the globe.

So what does that mean for your team and your customers? It’s more important now than ever before that you know your budget is used on the most efficient and productive solution to store and move your product in the face of a rapidly changing environment.

What do you need to know? How can Storage Solutions help navigate the unknowns?

Volatility Around Steel and Commodity Prices

Steel prices peaked in late 2021. During the last quarter of 2021, steel prices were roughly triple where they had been before the pandemic. Already in the first quarter of 2022, the market has seen steel prices fall to about 60% of their peak before wildly jumping another 40%. In a matter of days, prices are fluctuating at rates that previously took months or years.

All that volatility means manufacturers cannot hold quoted prices for very long. In years past, Storage Solutions and our vendors could hold prices for weeks because of the stability of the steel markets. Now?

Most quotes expire after a week – or even less in some cases – and you, the end-user, are forced to make decisions quicker than ever before. And to further complicate matters, each manufacturer is handling the uncertainty differently – putting additional strain on the market.

Global Instability & Inflation Causing Havoc

In addition to the material market, the logistics and transportation industries are also in a state of shock. Demand for transportation has never been higher. Meanwhile, the trucking market, which hauls over 70% of U.S. freight, is undergoing a historic labor shortage.

It does not take an economist to recognize that when supply and demand are diverting at this rate, prices for shipping will skyrocket.

The effects of inflation and global instability also take their toll on the supply chain. In addition to an already dire situation, gas prices have been up 47% since March 2021, adding even more costs to ship material across the country. Every organization across the supply chain feels the effects of these price increases.

While there is no “magic bullet” for any of these challenges, having Storage Solutions as a partner like us can help navigate the unknowns. Here’s how:

The Right Partner Can Mitigate Risks Caused by Volatility

Find a partner with the right connections. When it comes to sourcing new warehouse equipment, Storage Solutions works with many different pallet rack and equipment manufacturers. We have built many important relationships over the years, which helps customers find the best fit for their needs.

Find a partner who can take advantage of unrivaled manufacturer alliances. We have established foundational relationships that give us access to dedicated production allotments with our manufacturing partners. These allotments help fill the volume of orders we place each month and cut down on standard lead times. We have built long-term relationships with the industry’s leading pallet rack, shelving, and mezzanine manufacturers.

Look for a company that keeps new warehouse equipment on hand. We have a 330,000 square foot warehouse in central Indiana that holds new warehouse equipment available for immediate purchase by our customers. When lead times don’t meet our customers’ project timetables, we often store uprights, beams, wire decking, and other products to fit a project’s specific needs.

Look for a partner who also sources used materials. Our warehouse is not only home to new warehouse equipment but also allows us to store and actively source quality preowned warehouse equipment. We have a dedicated team that purchases quality pre-owned warehouse equipment from teardowns and relocations. If you want to sell your used equipment, keep in mind that we’re always interested in buying!

Look for a partner who can help you develop innovative warehouse solutions. Whether developing a new facility or helping reconfigure an existing racking layout, we understand that downtime needs to be minimized. We approach each situation with an operations-based focus and pride ourselves on finding creative ways to meet our clients’ needs on every project.

What’s the Next Step for You?

When considering a partner for a project, keep in mind that Storage Solutions has the experience, expertise, and partnerships to help you navigate the challenges your business now faces.

Storage Solutions has professionals on staff who can provide material sourcing alternatives, construct a more dynamic project plan, or develop project initiatives to keep your business moving forward while we provide your next warehouse material handling equipment solution.

Dynamic Solutions Beat Labor Challenges

Throughout the supply chain, businesses are experiencing labor challenges in various ways, and it has taken a toll on throughput and profitability for many.

First of all, labor availability is at an all-time low, and fulfillment centers are routinely operating at below capacity because of it. That puts undue pressure on the remaining workers, who are then overextended in attempting to meet consumers’ increasing expectations on quicker delivery for an ever-increasing share of e-commerce orders. In this environment, fulfillment centers are also adjusting to fewer shipments of full pallets and a more significant share of each or order picks, which are more expensive and lead to increased labor costs.

Plus, because labor availability is so low, companies are required to raise wages – and sometimes add bonuses – to attract new employees. That factor makes employee retention more difficult because now there is more competition for those higher-paying jobs, so workers are more apt to jump from one company to another. So, in changing careers and changing companies, quality control is affected as more employees need to be trained.

In short, the labor market is a mess right now. COVID-19 and other external factors have caused a dramatic shift in supply chain employment, and companies are feeling the pain of all these changes. Some have adopted dynamic strategies to reduce dependency on human labor for fulfilling orders, and some are in the process of investigating potential options for their operations.

In fact, one of the most common themes we hear from clients is that they may have waited too late, and now they need to play catch-up. We have found that clients are getting their biggest “bang for the buck” on integrating solutions around their picking, packing, and replenishment operations.

Below are a few dynamic solutions we design and provide that may help your business catch up to meet today’s challenges, but in reality, these solutions should also come with a roadmap to help your operations adapt to future challenges that may be unforeseen.

Adding Conveyor and Sortation Solutions

Conveyor and sortation solutions can be a solvent for labor challenges, primarily by reducing the amount of physical travel required by transporting products long distances within a facility. Through proper design, conveyors can dramatically improve fulfillment speeds, add quality control, and improve safety in a facility.

Even if you have a conveyor system currently running in your facility, it may be time to re-evaluate your design as demand and needs change. Retrofitting existing conveyors with new parts, sortation solutions, or new motors can also make a sizeable impact on your replenishment, picking, and packing efforts.

Condense Your Footprint with Vertical Lift Modules

While condensing your storage doesn’t always directly solve labor challenges, vertical lift modules (VLMs) offer various benefits to fulfillment operations, particularly when it comes to picking items to a cart. VLMs offer a fully-automated goods-to-person picking and storage solution that can be ideal when your process involves small-to-medium products.

Pick-to-light batching tables can be incorporated to allow for picking multiple orders to drive higher pick rates and eliminate guesswork from the batching process. With these high pick rates and additional throughput and accuracy, you can drive labor savings.

Introduce Automated Warehouse Robotics

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) are two typical warehouse solutions to labor challenges because of their fulfillment rates, operational costs, safety benefits, and order accuracy. Our partners at Fetch Robotics and inVia Robotics work with your labor force to support replenishment, picking, and transportation of products. These solutions can be installed as a subscription service, meaning you don’t have to invest in massive infrastructure at your facility.

These solutions integrate with your warehouse management systems (WMS) to optimize pick paths to support your pick process or do the picking entirely, depending on your needs. Ultimately, though, they remove the costliest aspect of fulfillment – humans walking through a warehouse.

Reduce Costs When You Automate Your Packaging

Especially as a greater share of orders are being shipped individually than by-the-pallet, automating your packaging process can support increased throughput and lower labor costs. From case sealers to auto-baggers to print-and-apply labeling systems, there are several solutions that can prevent you from paying someone to package individual or group orders.

These end-of-the-line solutions can automatically measure and add void-fill, reducing waste, freight costs, and can improve customer satisfaction along the way.

Invest in Automation with Goods-to-Person Picking Systems

Even if you have no level of automation in your operations, it may be worth investigating how to integrate automated goods-to-person picking systems in your facility. However, before diving in too deep, we recommend speaking with an expert that has conducted a data-driven analysis of your material flow to determine the right solution for your business goals.

Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) can come in cart-based solutions, crane-based solutions, cart-crane combinations, mini-load AS/RS, and more. They all drive extremely high pick rates, optimal storage design, ergonomic support and can scale as your business goals grow. However, because there are so many options out there, finding the right solution requires the design and expertise of a proper project partner. We’d be happy to discuss these options with you!

Need Some Advice? Contact an Expert

Our team of experts has experience with various solutions that can relieve the dependency on labor and drive an ROI by increasing your throughput. For us, solving labor challenges is less about eliminating workers but more about keeping your best employees around by making their jobs more accessible, more consistent and creating opportunities for less wear-and-tear per pick.

If you’re reacting to labor challenges, call us today to find which of these solutions is suitable for your operations.

Planning for Future Flexibility

Depending on your business cycle, planning comes at different times of the fiscal year. Typically, we see businesses planning for next year’s budget or big projects toward the second half of the year, especially in the third quarter (and sometimes, into the fourth).

However – as evidenced in almost every line of business – we are in a different world this year. Between the changing dynamics caused by COVID-19 and its variants, supply chain shortages, and fluctuating labor availability, planning for a flexible operational future has never been more critical.

Some of the common challenges that have affected the warehouse industry have been there for decades. Labor availability, rising prices, and material flow challenges have all been around for years. However, warehouses and distribution centers have been tasked with some unique challenges over the last two years, including the Amazon Effect’s dramatic rise, an incredibly volatile trade landscape, and unique labor challenges that started with the onset of COVID-19 in the United States.

At the core of finding solutions to these challenges is planning for flexibility in your operations. If there were a common thread among successful businesses amid the pandemic, it would be those who were dynamic, technologically adept, and those who maximized the value of their fulfillment operations. So, going into the next year or extensive set of projects, it stands to reason those companies will continue their success.

Steel prices are high, lead times are long, and that may not be changing soon.

According to Mining Technology, in July 2021, steel prices have been trading around 200% higher than during a pre-pandemic March 2020, and there isn’t any market movement to indicate price reductions until at least 2022. The report states, “Prices are expected to remain high due to the massive outstripping of demand vs. supply, and the time it will take for supply to catch up and replenish depleted steel stockpiles.”

So, not only is steel more expensive, but it is also more challenging for some companies to source materials; there is little inventory available. It helps to be a distributor of the size of Storage Solutions. Because we are the most significant storage equipment integrator in North America, we can leverage our unmatched partnerships with reserved production capacity programs for pallet racking, mezzanines, pick modules, and other equipment needs. However, just because we are more likely to source steel doesn’t necessarily mean it will be cheaper.

It is challenging to plan for a scenario like this. For example, let’s say you plan a project to start in a year, and the material price jumps 200% and cannot be guaranteed for delivery; what do you do? For us, it means our team of experts understands market forecasts like this, advises our partners on the best course of action early, and helps find the material they need to stick to their budget more closely. After all, when you’re building a three-level mezzanine with pick modules and vertical reciprocating conveyors and a 10% spike in pricing is coming, it is better to work with a partner who knows the market and can advocate action before that spike becomes 200%.

Labor challenges are real, expanding, and causing chaos in nearly every industry.

Suppose there is one common challenge among most companies in North America – if not the world – is the ever-evolving labor market. At the same time, labor challenges have been common in the warehousing industry for decades. However, during the same period in which warehouse managers are battling a volatile steel market and long lead times, they are also fighting “The Great Resignation.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2.7% of the entire U.S. workforce quit their jobs in July 2021, and a majority of these resignations took place in retail, professional services, transportation, warehousing, and utilities. The hope is that July 2021 was the peak of “The Great Resignation,” the term that refers to a rising turnover trend that arose in March 2020 with the start of COVID-19 spread in the U.S.

Some of the variables behind these trends are in a company’s control. There are elements like workplace conditions, benefits, flexibility, and more that can be managed to some degree. However, what happens when the competitor down the road can offer slightly better conditions or pay? What happens if another “Act of God” causes significant supply chain disruptions and strained conditions? How do you keep your business running if your employees can’t go to work?

At the same time, costs are also rising – not only with the actual labor rates and what is needed to complete order fulfillment. The operational costs go into recruiting, hosting job fairs, hiring, training (and then repeated if that process when the employee leaves). When those “soft” labor costs get added into the complete picture, then the situation becomes clear: you need to find a fix.

In terms of labor, planning for flexibility could mean a higher reliance on warehouse robotics and technology to solve these challenges. Solutions exist that can dramatically improve fulfillment rates while reducing dependence on human labor and lower costs. This environment doesn’t mean replacing your workers, only reducing your turnover. You can keep your best employees participating in higher-level tasks than walking around. For instance, inVia’s PickMate solution assists employees who are picking products by calculating the most efficient and accurate path to get products from storage to pack-out. This solution does not require an investment in infrastructure and can deliver an ROI on day one of implementation.

PickMate is just one example of the countless options that can improve aspects of your operation and better your bottom line. There are certainly systems out there that can enhance your operations. The best way to start is to work with an industry leader like Storage Solutions that takes an agnostic approach to find the best solution for you based on your operational needs and business goals.

So, what can you do to plan for flexibility in the future?

If you need some help determining how to move forward, give us a call. With our robust project management, creative design engineers, and network of manufacturing partners, we take most of the burden off of the planning process because we know all aspects of the project, from design to installation, through implementation and support.

Whether your challenges are sourcing material, designing material flow, labor challenges, or meet changing customer expectations, we can be there to assist in building out a roadmap that helps you reach your goals, both short-and-long-term. We’ve worked with companies along the distribution chain to develop simple, smart, and strategic solutions to their storage, picking & operational challenges.

While some of those challenges can be solved with active project management and responding reactively to problems, we take the correct approach – a proactive one – in recommending flexibility in developing your plans. Let’s get started today!

Increased Volume of E-Commerce Orders

According to Digital Commerce 360, e-commerce, as a portion of total retail sales, rose 44% in 2020, triple the rate increase of sales over the prior year. While the result has been increased convenience for consumers, warehouses, fulfillment centers, and distribution centers are looking to overcome challenges associated with that dramatic shift in consumer behavior.

Some are looking at building new facilities dedicated to fulfilling these types of orders. Others are looking to design and technology solutions that can help them meet the unique demands of their current facilities. Either way, they are seeking to resolve fulfillment challenges that are resulting from the rise of e-commerce.

With massive change in consumer behavior underway – and more change to come down the road – let us take a closer look at each of the significant pain points caused by the rapid increase of e-commerce on the supply chain.

The most accessible place to start in examining common challenges to facilitate more e-commerce orders is in the facility’s design. Warehouses are reaching storage capacity for their original intended design and function. After all, many warehouses were built to sustain and maximize full pallet orders. Now, there is a requirement to facilitate a more significant share of e-commerce orders, which means they need to react to higher order volume and store a wider variety of SKUs.

There are also inherent design hurdles to overcome regarding where – and how – the products are stored and retrieved. For instance, the warehouse goes from storing pallets and cases in static racking, where employees are driving powered equipment to travel to a location, pick a pallet or case, take it to a shipping area, and send it out the door. Now, they need to make individual products accessible, typically available at the floor level, and make it easy for someone to pick either a unit or multiple SKUs for an order.

They need to mold their processes to move from case-or-pallet picking to include the each picking required by e-commerce. In that transition, they are learning that it is very different to pick individual products.

With each picking, the process for fulfillment is nearly double the number of steps compared to case-or-pallet selection. Forklift retrieval for full pallet or case picking, where a high volume of a single product can be moved and shipped – process warehouses have made efficient for decades.

For a higher percentage of orders, workers must now pick, consolidate, pack, and then ship orders, all while customers are demanding their products be delivered more quickly than ever. Now operations will need to establish a consolidation process, packing process, and shipping process.

After all, e-commerce orders are requiring these businesses to double their processes. Are those processes optimized? How are they integrated with the full pallet orders? What tools are available to help with the transition?

Those are all reasons why the operational cost of fulfilling a single order for e-commerce is higher than that of a pallet or case order. Distribution centers and warehouses are already under increased wage pressure, and now they need to integrate these new, increased operational expenses that chip away at their bottom line.

In addition, the costs for labor rising are not only the costs for labor, but the availability of reliable labor is a real challenge that warehouses, fulfillment centers, and distribution centers are all facing. Whether it is due to the COVID-19 pandemic or other external forces, absenteeism is growing in this sector.

Combine all the above, then also factor that we are amid a labor shortage in the supply chain industry, which in part arose due to a sharp rise in demand for trained workers, among other external factors.

What Challenges Are You Experiencing?

What other challenges are you experiencing as a result of the rise of e-commerce? There are emerging trends that dynamic operations respond to, but we understand that each fulfillment center has its unique challenges, and we are here to help.

To adjust to the challenges caused by a rising share of e-commerce orders, a similarly increasing share of distribution and fulfillment centers are investigating adding automation, technology, and dense storage solutions. Autonomous mobile robots, automated packing solutions, and goods-to-person picking solutions all have applications to combat the challenges caused by the higher order volume and can be implemented without requiring an investment in costly infrastructure. These solutions also help relieve high labor costs and labor reliance while helping drive throughput and speed in the fulfillment process.

Whether you are experiencing labor challenges, seeking alternatives to manual fulfillment, or investigating long-term ROI strategies, give us a call. We have multiple partners who can provide solutions to these challenges in introduce increased labor efficiency into your operations. Our team has years of experience designing an ideal solution based on your data and our years of expertise.

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!

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 system, 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 packaging 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.