When it comes to their omnichannel fulfillment capabilities, DCs blow their retail store counterparts away. That much was clear from the recent study on omnichannel distribution conducted by ARC Advisory Group and DC Velocity. But that doesn't mean DCs don't face challenges of their own. For facilities tasked with filling direct-to-consumer orders, for instance, one of the biggest headaches is the handling and picking of individual items or "eaches."
Distribution centers today can deploy automated equipment to remove cases from a pallet, but that's not practical with eaches. What makes the task of opening a box and retrieving an item so tough to automate is that each case could contain items of different sizes, shapes, and textures. (If the items were uniform in size, as with a tote of the same-shaped milk jugs, then automation becomes more feasible. But that's not typically the case in omnichannel fulfillment operations.)
As a result, it's still a very manually intensive task to pick, pack, and ship an individual order. And that means a lot of workers are required.
What's needed to get around that problem is a robot, a humanoid machine with eyes, arms, hands, and feet. Granted, there are robot-like machines in use today. Take the bots from Kiva Systems, for instance. Although they may be known as robotic fulfillment devices, Kiva's bots are not true robots, however. They're merely mechanized shuttles that ferry totes to a worker, who then must pick out the items. The advantage here is that the worker doesn't have to waste time traveling around the warehouse or DC to find the item to select.
Then there are robot-like machines for picking—for example, SSI Schaefer's Robo-Pick for order fulfillment. Robo-Pick can retrieve items from boxes on a conveyor; in fact, the company claims that its picking robot can pick approximately 95 percent of the typical products handled in wholesale or direct-to-consumer fulfillment operations. But the device is fixed-mounted over the conveyor, and it can't pry open cartons.
A true robot, by contrast, would have mobility, vision, and a prehensile grasp like any primate. At the moment, there's no such machine out there. But a company called Rethink Robotics has developed a robot called Baxter that's a step in the direction of R2-D2. Baxter is a robot with a TV screen face, mechanical arms, and rollers for legs. It also has the ability to "see" and pick up objects.
In a presentation on robotics at the recent Supply Chain World conference, Tom Bonkenburg, director of European operations for the consulting firm St. Onge Co., described Baxter as an amazing technological development. But it's still in its infancy, he cautioned. Bonkenburg said logistics managers will likely have to wait for the second or third generation before they can put that machine to work in the warehouse.
Whether Baxter lives up to its potential or not, the real solution for both online and multichannel fulfillment will have to come from automating something any child can do—recognize and pick out desired objects. Until robots can match the faculties of a child, DCs will struggle to fill single orders for omnichannel commerce with any kind of efficiency.