Ottemo Blog

Automating Your Fulfillment - It doesn’t have to be expensive to be beneficial

by Mark Swanson

When one thinks about automation in a warehouse environment, what often comes to mind are miles of powered conveyor, barcode scanners, robotics, and the controlling switches and screens.

If asked what is the scariest part of automating your warehouse and fulfillment, many of you will say “cost.” Large companies specializing in selling automation are happy to have you expect lots of equipment and a hefty price tag as necessary to make your fulfillment faster and error free.

It simply doesn’t have to be that way. There are tools you can use to accomplish very close to the same results for a tiny fraction of the cost.

Here are some examples of how tools and technology can be easily and inexpensively integrated into your fulfillment process.

Order Management

A good eCommerce platform with an order management component can make getting orders to the floor fast, and in a way your order pickers can fulfill them most efficiently. For example, sort and print by carrier, service level or geographic region, order type, order size, by single or multiple lines, category, picking zone or picking path. Any of these sorts will make the process much more efficient than printing randomly. The more orders you have the better this works, of course. 100+ orders are better sorted automatically opposed to manually by warehouse staff after printing.

Order Picking Directed Picking is something good warehouse management systems can provide for the order picker on the floor. This can also be done as a result of a proper sort at time of printing. All you need to do is use an inventory program that assigns a location to the products being picked. Label your shelving in a serial fashion, for example 01 01 01, 01 01 02 for aisle 1, bay (rack) 1, shelf 1 and aisle 1, bay 1, shelf 2, respectively. If you print orders in location order, your pickers will be able to pick the order in the order of location. This is much more efficient than walking back and forth randomly through the racks.
If you’re using a location-based inventory system, chances are you have the ability to use barcodes and scanning to remove items from inventory within your warehouse management system. Automating the inventory movement will help you get to at least 95% inventory accuracy without even thinking about it. The most cost effective way to do this is with a tablet or netbook and a bluetooth or USB scanner. A setup like this will cost 10% of an RF system with dedicated scanner/reader equipment. Check with your software provider to see if this is supported. If it is - big win! A typical small warehouse can easily spend $50,000 on traditional barcode equipment. Why do that when you can get a better experience for 10% of that cost.

Order Packing - Assembling the Order If you are assembling components of an order to make a finished good, or repeating the same items for many orders, consider a powered conveyor. Line up the components on carts along the side of the conveyor. As the shipping carton moves down the conveyor, workers drop in the components. Why not just use tables and push the box from one person to the next? You will only be as fast as the slowest person on the assembly line, whereas a powered conveyor moves at a consistent speed. Once you get a conveyor, you will find ways to utilize it even more. A 25’ powered belt conveyor with motor and speed controller can be purchased, delivered and installed professionally for around $3,000. Check out Global Industrial online. I have purchased and set up several.

Order Packing - Sealing the Boxes An automatic box taper is one of my favorite warehouse automation tools. This expensive piece of equipment can be loaned to you for free from your corrugated (box) supplier if you agree to a term contract and lots of boxes. Taping by hand will waste tape, allow for inconsistent and unprofessional appearance and require more time and labor. These can be placed at the end or a conveyor or alongside a packing station.

Shipping Automating the shipping process is best done by putting a scale inline or on a table in between conveyor sections. Slide the box on to the scale and once the weight is registered in the carrier shipping program, push the box off on to the next conveyor system and down to the floor for carrier pick up. This does not sound like much, but using one hand to simply slide a box opposed to both hands to lift on and off will save time and potential repetitive injury with heavier boxes. Scales can be had at no cost from UPS, FedEx and others. Inline versions (pictured above) can cost from $2500+.

An experienced advisor or consultant can present the best options for your application as well as assistance with negotiations and implementation.

Mark Swanson

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