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The State of Automation

Technology and innovation inside the four walls are changing the face of inventory management and transportation operations. Are you ready for the brave, new world?
By Bob Trebilcock, Editor at Large
February 24, 2011

TARGETED AUTOMATION
The last trend might be called targeted automation: Embracing automation where it makes sense and embracing smart manual processes where they make sense. “One of our rules of automation is that an end user should take a long hard look at a lean approach to operating before they automate,” says Strahan. “You don’t automate more than you need or automate things that shouldn’t be automated at all.” Instead of spending $20 million to automate 100 percent of your storage, maybe you can spend $5 million to automate 20 percent of your storage and still get productivity gains from smart traditional processes.


CVS is a proponent of this approach, according to Intelligrated’s McKnight. Over the years, CVS has built some of the most highly automated distribution centers in North America. Yet, Intelligrated is working on a project with CVS that involves a traditional wide-aisle, low-bay distribution system. The takeaway: “From working with automation, CVS has learned that it’s important to find the right niche,” says McKnight. “They will put in lights out automation where it makes sense, but they won’t hesitate to put in a traditional solution enhanced by limited automation if that makes sense.”

To that end, materials handling companies are developing flexible and scalable solutions that allow their customers to do just that type of targeted automation.

One example is a mobile A-frame developed by SI Systems. “It’s designed for the warehouse with anywhere from 16 to 64 fast-moving products and spikes in demand that create bottlenecks,” says Casey. “You can move the A-frame into place, lock it down, and do order fulfillment of any fast-moving product that has stackability characteristics, like round bottles or square boxes. If your demand picks up, you can add another unit.”

Likewise, Swisslog developed a high-density storage solution that uses bins for storage and robotic extractors that travel on a grid above the bins. “If a user needs to add more throughput, they can add more bins or more robots,” says Markus Schmidt, senior vice president of Swisslog. “You can start small and easily expand.”

THE NEXT FRONTIER
Over the last several years, tremendous achievements have been made in automated solutions for case picking and palletizing that use automated storage, conveyor and sortation systems, and robotic palletizing.

The next frontier is piece picking. It is, after all, the most labor intensive activity in a distribution center. It is also the process with the most opportunity for error. “Piece picking is what we’re all trying to conquer,” says TGW’s Strayhorn. “There are solutions out there, but I don’t know that any of us has solved the problem to the satisfaction of our end users.”

The most common approach to automating piece picking is a goods-to-person solution that uses some type of automated storage and conveyor to deliver the products to be picked to an ergonomic workstation. There, lights, voice, or images on a display screen will automatically tell the associate how many items to pick and where to place them. That type of solution is most often used to aggregate a high number of slow-moving stock keeping units into space saving storage and eliminate walking on the part of the associate.

Witron has created a variation of that solution for operations that include case and piece picking in the same order. The systems uses an AS/RS to automatically replenish a pick face; pick-to-light to optimize piece picking; and software to marry the individual items picked to a carton or tote with full case picks for that order at the palletizer.

Other solution providers, such as Axium, have developed robotic piece picking solutions that completely automate the piece picking process in applications that include a consistent product.

Developments like these, combined with the sophistication of software for automation, could lead to a brighter future for materials handling automation. “I think the most important development is that the industry and end users are more in tune with creating a solution than selling equipment,” says Strahan. “We’re seeing more people who understand automation and applications than in the past.”


For more information on Automation, visit our Automation Critical Topics page

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About the Author

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Bob Trebilcock
Editor at Large

Bob Trebilcock, executive editor, has covered materials handling, technology and supply chain topics for Modern Materials Handling since 1984. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484 and .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)


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