Innovation is reshaping the picking-technologies landscape as tech providers seek to meet customers' growing need to increase productivity and throughput in their distribution centers. Driven by a shift in fulfillment trends toward smaller orders and increased piece-picking, suppliers are serving up a host of innovative solutions that can make workers more efficient and push organizations farther down the road toward automation. Industry experts say smarter, more intuitive voice technology; wearable products that streamline manual picking; and advanced robotics that speed up the sorting process in piece-picking operations are just a few of the newest advancements helping DCs meet those goals.
Process improvement is at the heart of the issue and the key driver of today's more advanced technologies, according to Scott Deutsch, Americas president for supply chain execution and voice software solutions provider Ehrhardt Partner Group (EPG). Deutsch says cost reduction used to be the primary reason for investing in productivity-enhancing voice-picking technologies in particular. Today, he says, organizations are focused on streamlining operations to manage the growing complexity of the picking process—while also getting orders out the door faster and more accurately.
"If you think about it, 10 years ago a lot of companies would [just] ship cases to their local retail location," Deutsch explains. "Today, businesses fulfill orders from the warehouse as well as the retail store. Customers can place orders wherever and however they want, and they can pick it up at the store or have it delivered to their home. [As a result,] if companies are [processing] 150 orders a day, they want to know how they get to 180 a day. Today, that is the big driver."
GIVING NEW VOICE TO PICKING
Modern voice solutions can increase employee productivity by more than 10 percent, according to EPG, which offers its Lydia Voice solution for warehouse and logistics operations. This is due in part to technological advances such as smarter voice-recognition technology, which is one of the biggest changes the voice segment has experienced in the past 10 years, Deutsch says. Advanced voice software solutions now use deep neural networks—the same kind Apple and Amazon use to power virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa—that can provide a more than 25-percent increase in voice-recognition accuracy, he adds. This is vital for use in noisy warehouses, where near perfection is required to ensure that the right products are picked, packed, and shipped consistently, he says.
Deutsch adds that today's more advanced technology also eliminates the need for voice template training, in which each employee would typically spend 30 to 40 minutes training the system to recognize his or her voice in order for it to work effectively. In addition to raising productivity levels, this advancement allows for greater buy-in at warehouses and DCs, where employment levels often fluctuate due to high turnover and strong seasonal demand for labor.
"[Extensive training] would be acceptable if you only had full-time employees and they never left," Deutsch explains. "That's the old way of doing voice recognition. Today, because of our deep neural network, employees can just start talking [and the system will work]."
In addition to individual productivity improvements, today's more advanced voice-picking technology also contributes to increased order throughput across the facility, which is another key management goal, Deutsch notes. He points to the complexity and high cost of expanding a facility or relocating to accommodate business growth in today's fast-paced omnichannel environment.
"Businesses are growing, and they are looking for ways to improve the overall process [to accommodate] that growth," he explains. "Customers are asking, 'How do I get [higher] throughput at my existing facility?' If you can delay the lease or construction of a new building, that's a direct impact to the bottom line."
WEARABLES GET SMARTER
Experts also point to innovations in wearable picking technologies, especially those focused on worker comfort and buy-in. With voice systems, users have more choices in how they wear the hardware today; some newer solutions allow workers to choose between a headset or a wearable vest, for instance. The trend is also emerging among makers of bar-code scanning devices, as companies develop ergonomic scanning solutions that streamline the manual picking process. Munich, Germany-based startup ProGlove is one example. The firm has developed a wearable hands-free scanning solution that company leaders say can save up to four seconds per scan and speed up the overall picking process by as much as 50 percent. ProGlove offers a lightweight industrial glove with an attachable scanning module that allows workers to use both hands to grab and move items instead of repeatedly picking up and putting down a handheld scanner. Especially suited to fast-paced operations—those with 200 or so scans per station per day—the hardware-only solution works wirelessly and integrates with a company's existing software system.
"There is certainly a business case for this if you are scanning a lot," says Adam Brown, the company's U.S. marketing manager, emphasizing the worker-comfort aspect of the product. "From the end user's perspective, there are not a lot of products in the industrial space that think about the user in the creation of the product. Users get excited about this. In the world of bar-code scanning, that's not something you see every day."
The glove comes in a range of sizes, and ProGlove also offers a hand wrap for applications that don't require hand protection as well as for those that require workers to wear heavy-duty gloves, such as cold-storage environments.
Brown adds that solutions such as ProGlove's help bridge the gap between the manual and automated solutions found in most warehouses and DCs today.
"In this middle ground we're in, where some of the process is automated but humans are still involved, making [workers] as effective and as efficient as they can be is really important," he says.
SORTING OUT NEW SOLUTIONS
The buzz over DC automation is spurring interest in robotic picking solutions as well. Robotics company Kindred offers a key example with its piece-picking solution called "Sort." Used by retailers in omnichannel and e-commerce fulfillment centers, Sort is an artificial intelligence (AI)-driven robotic solution that automates the manual process of sorting multiple SKU (stock-keeping unit) batches into a single customer order. Using vision, grasping, and manipulation technology, Sort consists of a robotic arm that separates items into predetermined slots that are laid out in a circular pattern around the arm. Employees then unload the sorted, completed orders. Sort is designed for organizations that are looking for ways to reduce their dependence on labor and boost throughput, according to Monique Apter, Kindred's vice president of sales. She says the solution is currently best suited for applications in the apparel industry but adds that Kindred is working on expanding into a wider array of general-merchandise items, such as shoes and cosmetics.
Apter says artificial intelligence and advanced algorithms are allowing companies like Kindred to apply robotics to more complex piece-picking operations—and as a result, help their customers address some of the major growth- and management-related issues of the day.
"The two challenges we consistently hear about from our customers are dealing with massive labor shortages and the demand for faster delivery," she explains, pointing to the explosive growth in online spending predicted over the next several years and noting that in the U.S. alone, e-commerce is seeing double-digit growth year after year. "With the advanced AI algorithms that Kindred has developed, we are able to teach robots to grasp and manipulate items of varying shapes and sizes in an environment that continuously changes. This breakthrough has made it possible to easily incorporate robotic solutions into fulfillment centers."
ProGlove's Brown adds that most organizations will continue to test and incorporate different kinds of picking technologies as they work to address omnichannel demands, labor challenges, and other industry issues. He emphasizes the evolution of distribution center technologies in general and the ongoing journey toward automation that most organizations are navigating.
"Companies are using a lot of different technologies. There is a lot of interplay between solutions," he says, noting that customers often ask how they can eventually integrate ProGlove's solution with vision technology like Google Glass, as one example. "We seem to be in a testing phase, where companies are not just changing things [completely]. They don't know what is going to be the ultimate solution ... so it seems like they don't want to invest only in one thing. Customers are saying, how do we take this to the next level?"