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Cliff Holste

Supply Chain Digest
Material Handling Editor

Logistics News - Sorting It Out

Cliff Holste is Supply Chain Digest's Material Handling Editor. With more than 30 years experience in designing and implementing material handling and order picking systems in distribution, Holste has worked with dozens of large and smaller companies to improve distribution performance.

April 26, 2017

Sorting It Out : Automated Piece Picking Evaluation Criteria

List of Key Attributes for Piece Picking Operations


While attending ProMat 2017, Dan Gilmore and I reported on a new and growing number of piece picking technologies that we think can dramatically change order fulfillment processes and cost for many shippers. In fact, today there are many more technologies and deployment options for automated piece picking than most logistics managers realize, because to date implementation and promotion of these technologies are still early in the cycle. But much has been done in terms of R&D to bring automated piece picking to market and a number of deployments have been established. If you haven’t done so already, you can review our live reports from the show floor at DAY 1 & DAY 2

Holste Says...

Whether you are considering robotic piece picking or some other semi-automated Goods-to-Person solution, business managers must obviously find a way to organize the evaluation criteria.

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Whether you are considering robotic piece picking or some other semi-automated Goods-to-Person solution, business managers must obviously find a way to organize the evaluation criteria. It is critically important to ask questions so that you can learn how each of the alternatives being offered impacts on your business. The following is an initial attempt at listing a number of key variables or attributes that can differ across categories of providers.

  • Initial System Cost: Hardware, software, implementation, building modifications, training, etc.

  • Capacity (pieces or units per hour): This metric can be tricky to calculate due to the incremental way different systems operate. For example, once you know what the average pick rate of a robot is you can then determine how many robots will be required. For other types of systems the capacity will depend on several supporting factors including a manual labor component.

  • Supporting Labor Cost: How much labor will be needed to run the system, or in work processes upstream and downstream for the new automation? What about peak volume periods?

  • Process Complexity: How complex will the system be to manage, especially around replenishment and/or re-stocking activities (an often overlooked factor)? Also, how does it handle customer change orders?

  • Footprint Requirements: How much floor space and vertical height is required and optimal (these are usually two different numbers)? For comparison purposes you might want to assign a cost to this space usage.

  • Changes Required to the Existing Building Structure: Scope and cost of any building changes needed to accommodate each system being considered.

  • Scalability (ease and cost): How “small” can you start, and how easy and expensive will it be to expand the system over time? In addition, how will the system handle seasonal peaks?

  • Maintenance Issues/uptime: What sort of system maintenance will be required, what are the skills required (can you do it with in house personal?), and what is the projected level of uptime?

  • Flexibility: How will the system handle changes in customer order profiles, and varying SKU size and weight configurations?

  • Percent of Total Piece Picking Volume That Potentially Could Be Handled: The various systems will likely vary in terms of how much of the total piece picking volumes that they can handle, either physically or from a capacity perspective. Many shippers have cut-off times for next day delivery during which they experience high volumes of customer orders. How easily can the system be ramped-up to handle peaks in picking activity?

  • Proven Implementations: How and where has each solution been implemented, both generally and within your industry or type of distribution model? This does not mean a company shouldn’t partner with a vendor to jointly develop a new-to-market solution, but among more established solutions, see where your type of application has been successful.

  • Power Consumption: How much energy will each solution use?

  • Safety: Are there important differences in the level of safety and risk of injury between the different alternatives?

  • TCO & Total ROI: What is the projected total cost of ownership (TCO) over five years, and then what is the estimated ROI for each solution?

Final Thoughts

Of course, other more application specific criteria can be added, but we think this is a good list from which to start the evaluation process.

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