A new survey of warehouse executives shows a general positive feeling around their existing piece-picking operations when it comes to accuracy and efficiency, but with an undertone that their systems could be a lot better. To address this, many of those surveyed are looking at automation and robotics systems to help them improve.
A survey sponsored by inVia Robotics looked to see where warehouse companies were at in terms of their operations, awareness of options available to them, and what challenges they faced in their operations. The group surveyed 150 people in the e-commerce, retail (with an e-commerce component), or third-party logistics sector, with titles ranging from CEO, COO/VP, operations, warehouse managers, or senior IT or technologies executives. Survey respondents had at least 10,000 square-feet for warehousing operations, processed 300+ orders per day, and had more than 5,000 SKUs in their warehouse (with 50% of totes kept in warehouses weighing less than 40 pounds).
The survey asked respondents to agree or disagree (with rating levels) to a series of statements around their company’s order-picking process, and whether their system:
- Is accurate – 35% strongly agree, 45% agree – 20% disagree or other
- Utilizes space efficiently – 37% strongly agree, 42% agree, 11% disagree or other
- Supports potential business growth – 30% strongly agree, 49% agree, 11% disagree or other
- Utilizes cutting-edge technology – 41% strongly agree, 37% agree, 12% disagree or other
- Provides a safe work environment – 41% strongly agree, 36% agree, 23% disagree or other
- Is cost-effective – 29% strongly agree, 48% agree, 23% disagree or other
- Is as efficient as we’d like it to be – 35% strongly agree, 40% agree, 25% disagree or other
- Is as fast as we’d like it to be – 35% strongly agree, 40% agree, 25% disagree or other
- Is or was easy to train – 31% strongly agree, 48% agree, 31% disagree or other
- Is or was easy to implement or integrate – 36% strongly agree, 40% agree, 24% disagree or other
- Is highly dependent on human labor – 30% strongly agree, 36% agree, 34% disagree or other.
When you combine the “strongly agree” numbers with the “agree” choices, it would appear that respondents are happy with their order-picking process. However, inVia officials said they saw the results as respondents having a “lukewarm satisfaction level” with the processes. For example, in the question of whether an order-picking process is as efficient as they would like it to be, inVia pointed out that 65% either don’t think it’s good enough, or think it could be better (since only 35% chose ‘strongly agree’).
“I think that they are settling and that’s starting to scare them,” said Kristen Moore, chief marketing officer at inVia Robotics. “There’s so much pressure to be able to find some efficiency in the process. What we read into this was they are settling for what they have now, but they’re also assessing automation because they know they need to do it because this isn’t going to be good enough.”
For example, Moore pointed out that on the question about whether companies felt strongly that their system is accurate, only 35% said they felt strongly about it. “The rest said, ‘maybe, sort of,’ and I don’t think anybody believes that’s good enough,” said Moore.
A large majority of respondents had looked at, considered, or were currently looking or considering automation solutions for their warehouses, including;
- Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) — 81%
- Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) — 79%
- Pick-to-light systems — 67%
- Pick-to-voice / voice picking — 65%
Only 2% of the respondents said they have not started to look at automation solutions.
Moore said she didn’t think that the high interest in AS/RS necessarily means that these systems will end up competing with AMRs.
“When we go out to propose a solution to someone, they’re usually looking at a couple of AMRs and one AS/RS,” said Moore. “They want to make sure they’re looking at all of the options and doing in the math to see which one is going to help them more quickly prove out the ROI. This is an important decision for them, so they want to make sure that they research everything that’s out there to make an informed decision.”
While many larger companies are looking at AS/RS systems for new warehouse projects, Moore said she sees many smaller or midsize companies looking at AMRs for existing warehouse operations. “One of the things we hear a lot is, ‘If I’m going to implement automation, it can’t slow me down,’ she said. “ ‘I can’t shut down a whole warehouse or build a new warehouse – I need to be able to bring automation in really quickly and not disrupt operations.’ ”
In addition, Moore said companies are exploring both options and looking to integrate both models at a warehouse. “We’ve been asked several times to integrate with an arm, or with a shuttle system,” said Moore. “There will be some mixture there too – there’s an overlap in the Venn diagram.”
Accuracy in picking outweighs speed/efficiency
While not necessarily a surprise in the results, Moore said the company found the issue of accuracy in picking was a higher challenge for companies than speed or efficiency. When asked to provide their top challenges in the process, respondents answered:
- Accuracy issues in items picked/packed in customer order requests
- Efficiencies in picking/pulling items/products
- Not keeping or maintaining well-stocked inventory of products/items
- Poor productivity, or need to improve productivity
“Most of us in the AMR space were trying to help these businesses be more productive, which is still very high on the list,” said Moore. “But one of the things we found with in our deployments is accuracy is a really big issue. It goes beyond just picking – you certainly want to pick the most accurate item, but it also plays into whether you are replenishing accurately, and whether you are cycle counting accurately. These are the things that direct the bottom line for our customers because if you don’t know what or where your stock is, you can’t sell it. So it directly impacts their sales.”
In another question, companies were asked which workflows and tasks were the most important ones to make improvements with. While picking was at the top, other processes, such as cycle counting, replenishment, and serialization, were noted. “This points to the idea that accuracy goes through all of these different processes, and not just the picking piece,” said Moore. “It really points to a need for an end-to-end solution.”
For example, inVia Robotics recently announced that Wagner Logistics, a third-party logistics provider, implemented the company’s new inVia PickMate tool, which helps increase warehouse workers’ productivity and accuracy by directing them to the most efficient route through the warehouse. Wagner said it plans to deploy inVia Picker robots to work alongside warehouse workers to further automate its order fulfillment process.
The robotics company’s inVia Logic software utilizes artificial intelligence to map a customer’s warehouse, and then calculate the most efficient paths for moving goods through the fulfillment process, including replenishment, picking, to put back.
“We wanted to upgrade our processes to keep a competitive edge, “said Kyle VanGoethem, director of solutions at Wagner. “Our existing warehouse software fell short of the accuracy and productivity goals we want to achieve. We wanted smart technology that could meet our goals, grow with our business and integrate seamlessly into the warehouse. inVia checked every box.”