It must make for some interesting sales calls, but the leading vendors of pick-to-light systems appear to be backing off from that very name. Bill Hubacek, vice president of sales and marketing at Real Time Solutions in Emeryville, Calif., says his company no longer refers to its flagship product as a pick-to-light system. Why not? "Because that trivializes what it is," he answers. "We provide pretty sophisticated algorithms for order picking and order fulfillment. The hardware is an important component, but that's not what's critical.When we go in to see a customer, we talk for the first 10 minutes about lights and then talk about software for the next three months."
Hubacek is not alone. Ralph Henderson, national sales manager for pick-to-light vendor Kingway CAPS, based in Charlotte, N.C., agrees that the technology has evolved into something much more sophisticated than colored lights in the past two decades. Customers today want more, he says, and vendors have gotten the message. "People are saying: I need something more than … electronics that light up when I need to pick something. This is now all about the software that drives the hardware."
In fact, the more sophisticated companies are now hooking their pick-to-light technology up to warehouse management software (WMS) systems, which gives them a far broader and more detailed look at what's actually going on at the pick faces in a warehouse in real time. It used to be that the communication between software and the electronic displays on picking bays was pretty rudimentary—an instruction came through to pick a certain number of items from a particular bin, and the picker down on the warehouse floor pressed a button to acknowledge the instructions had been followed. But the systems weren't generally very good at identifying when quantities of items in the bins were low. And they weren't able to juggle manpower to compensate for differences in individual pickers' speeds, meaning some orders were filled way before others, leaving picking staff idle.
Now, users say, it's a whole new ball of wax.
"These days most vendors can swap around almost any information you want," says Kevin Novak, operations manager for East Coast Salon Service in Runnemede, N.J. "If you want to track tote content or you want your WMS to tell you in real time when an order was picked, by whom, into which tote, even what weight—all that information can be passed back and forth. Then you can generate replenishment reports and get the pick-to-light system to handle replenishment. You really have a choice as to where information resides and which system updates which system. The processing power and the number of record fields that can be processed have grown quite a bit in the last 20 years. It used to be transferred by floppy!"
Even the hardware has changed with the times. To illustrate, Novak points to his system from Siemens Dematic, bought 18 months ago, which offers modular snapon displays that can be swapped out in a heartbeat when a new product is introduced into a pick location. For Novak's distribution center—which distributes cosmetics, hair products and appliances throughout the northeast United States— a typical day would see a turnaround of around 800 orders, or 12,000 order lines, or 48,000 individual pieces picked. The market he serves is quirky, with products going in and out of fashion faster than TV reality shows.
All of which explains why Novak likes his new system so much. "The biggest feature is the flexibility," he says. "In our marketplace we receive every two months 200 to 250 new products with a lifetime of two months, so we have to reconfigure and re-slot on a continuous basis. The modular snap-on displays are rail mounted and if you want to delete a location or swap a light it's two keystrokes. To add one takes 30 seconds," he reports. "Installation is no longer a maze of wiring."
Like Novak, pick-to-light customers everywhere have embraced the new snap-on light displays, which work a little like track lighting in your house. For one thing, they're simpler to repair. "Five years ago all of your 50,000 lights were joined together by telephone cables, so there was an awful lot of wiring.When a wire shorted out, finding it was a hideous nightmare," says Eddie Capel, vice president of trading partner management at Manhattan Associates, which provides the software that runs many pick-to-light systems. Track-mounted displays have eliminated that problem.
Another handy technological advance is the introduction of light-emitting diodes (LEDs), which replaced conventional light bulbs. They use very little electricity, last an age and make for bright displays that are easy to read. "It's become a rather bulletproof system," says Novak. "With the Siemens system, we've replaced one light in a year and a half."
Pick-to-light systems have gotten more rugged, better integrated into DC software, and a great deal cheaper in the last few years. Henderson remembers that it was originally pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies that made pick-to-light famous back when installation cost $350 to $500 per location, because they were the only ones that could afford it. "Fast forward 20 years, and it's as low as $70 to $105 per location. Add inflation and a whole system costs about as much as a single forklift truck. It's no longer the one big capital expense for that year," Henderson says. In fact, companies can expect to see a return on their investment in about 24 months, rather than waiting the five to seven years it took in the past.
Don't go to the light
Pick-to-light has also become easier to convert to so-called put-to-light systems, which basically work like pick-to-light in reverse. Rather than sending pickers with order totes or carts out to retrieve items from lighted locations, put-to-light systems are set up so that batch picked items are instead brought to the stationary tote, cart or bin that's collecting items for an individual order. The light displays are located not at the SKU locations but at each order bin, telling the picker that this container needs so many of such and such a product to complete the order. In the case of the Borders book chain's Western region distribution center in Miraloma, Calif., pickers scan the ISBN number on a book, and the system displays numerous locations in the "put" face, each of them corresponding to an individual store that needs, say, two copies of Cold Mountain and 33 copies of The Da Vinci Code.
Steve Venegas, general manager of the facility, explains that it was necessary to buy a system—this one is from a Berkeley, Calif.-based vendor called Working Machines—because of the terrific growth Borders has experienced lately. In the last three years, Borders has added 33 superstores to Venegas's service area, which covers all states west of the Mississippi, parts of Texas and Hawaii, and Alaska. (Venegas also ships to Australia, Singapore and New Zealand.) Picking these orders required workers to keep track of complex orders that often consisted of one or two copies of multiple titles selected from a vast number of SKUs.
"We needed new technology to support our internal processing. The Working Machines group helped us develop a put-to-light system that has allowed us to make the most of the advancements in technology," Venegas says. "It operates in real time and the transactions are immediate. That allows us to see the status of current orders, outstanding orders and back orders. That in itself is a change for us—the visibility that those processes allow us to have. We get instantaneous order status information."
Capel, who formerly worked at Real Time Solutions, says put-to-light systems are beginning to predominate in DC situations over pick-to-light, because focusing on the individual order, or customer location, instead of each individual SKU, requires fewer displays. "With pick-to-light, you might be holding 10,000 different SKUs in your inventory and you need that many pick-to-light locations, which could cost you $2 million. But with put systems you only need one location per [order] destination, so typically you'd have 100 to 200 locations. So now instead of 10,000 lights you get 200." Capel says that, done right, put-to-light systems bring inventory levels down, because you're not fixated on keeping a bin full of every SKU. He says it can almost amount to cross-docking on a piece-by-piece basis. "It makes the DC so much more efficient because you're not carrying the inventory and everyone wants to move to cross-docking in this way," Capel says.
But the story isn't finished yet. John Garcia, director of marketing at Working Machines, argues that pick-to-light and put-to-light systems represent a huge opportunity for ongoing return on investment because the same basic system can be used to gather and disseminate more and more useful information.
"A company that looked at pick-to-light five years ago, or has a pick-to-light system and thinks this is all it's going to get out of it, really ought to open up its books and have another look at what the systems can do now," agrees Hubacek.
Henderson says all this is a good indicator of how much more demanding DC managers are these days. "People don't just want hardware to pick to light, that's the given. That's the commodity. In addition to that, they want to be able to balance inventory and labor, as well as obtain visibility of inventory and labor so they can be more efficient. That's going to give payback far faster than just hardware that lights up."
All the same, his advice to prospective or current users of pick-to-light technology is to make sure you have the right hardware and the right software for different scenarios. The auto parts business, for example, is all about holding inventory for when it's needed, Henderson says, so it suits the pick rather than the put approach.
Another issue to bear in mind is that the integration of pick or put systems into WMS systems is by no means a done deal, industrywide. "There are pick-to-light companies that don't want to work with WMS and WMS companies that think you don't need any other technology. But truly all these technologies need to be very tightly interwoven, so that at the end of the day you know what's going on in your warehouse," Henderson says. "What's happening now is politics. It's about who should be in control of this and, more importantly, who should benefit financially. There are probably 15 to 20 reputable pick-tolight companies out there, and 200 WMS vendors. People need to hook up."