Advanced picking technologies that incorporate robotics and vision systems are revolutionizing the way warehouses and distribution centers pick, pack, and ship orders—allowing companies to get those orders out the door faster than ever before. Nowhere was this more evident than at the recent Modex 2020 conference and expo, a showcase of logistics and material handling solutions held in Atlanta in March. The show featured a plethora of advanced picking technologies from both industry leaders and up-and-comers that offered a clear view of how the industry continues to automate as a way to boost productivity, address labor challenges, and streamline operations. Here’s a look at just a few new and updated offerings from companies that are outside the mainstream radar, but are nonetheless working to transform picking via robotic goods-to-person, piece-picking, and pick-by-vision solutions.
ELEVATING GOODS-TO-PERSON SOLUTIONS
French logistics technology firm Exotec showcased a goods-to-person picking system that uses a fleet of mobile robots able to move in three dimensions, all while eliminating much of the infrastructure typically involved in similar automated systems. Called Skypod, Exotec’s system can be used for picking and replenishment; its Skypod robots convey and store totes containing items in racks up to 10 meters (30-plus feet) high. The robots move through the warehouse without any guiding infrastructure, and there is no mechanization in the racks, creating an open and free-flowing system designed especially for e-commerce, retail, and similar operations, according to Exotec Sales Director Gilles Baulard.
The growth of e-commerce worldwide makes this a perfect time for Exotec to move into the U.S. market, Baulard adds, noting that the company is working with a handful of integrators to establish a presence here, including Arkansas- and Tennessee-based S&H Systems. Baulard says he anticipates having two Skypod systems running in the United States by the end of 2020. The company has systems running across Europe and in Japan, and counts French grocery retailer Carrefour and Japanese apparel retailer Uniqlo among its biggest customers. Baulard adds that small systems can be up and running in as little as six weeks but notes that typical system installations run between five and eight months.
He adds that Exotec’s software, which uses computer modeling and mathematical algorithms to expedite order preparation, is a key differentiator as well.
“This is a pure goods-to-person system,” Baulard said during a demonstration of the system at Modex. “There is no batch or wave picking. The next order is the most important one.”
Baulard explains that Exotec’s software evaluates and schedules orders every two to three minutes, based on customers’ pre-set parameters and priorities. In picking operations, the robots travel to the racking structure, where they attach to the uprights and move vertically to retrieve items stored in totes. The Skypod robots then move freely to the designated picking area, where workers pick items from the totes for individual orders.
Baulard says the system is unique and differs from typical shuttle-based systems in a few key ways. For one thing, the lack of mechanization in the racks saves space and allows companies to scale up easily, adding racks as demand increases. For another, the system is designed to eliminate bottlenecks; if a robot is down, you simply take it out of the system and continue working. There’s no need for the entire system to be shut down for maintenance.
The Skypod system is also faster than a typical shuttle system, according to Baulard, who says it’s capable of moving between 800 and 900 totes per hour.
But it doesn’t have to work that fast. Baulard emphasizes that the system is versatile and designed to adjust to higher or lower volumes as needed. Along those lines, the company is developing a rental program that will allow customers to temporarily add robots to the system to accommodate peak-season demands.
FINE-TUNING THE PIECE-PICK
Robotic piece-picking solutions are gaining steam as well, and many companies displayed the latest advances they’re bringing to the table during Modex 2020. Massachusetts-based RightHand Robotics (RHR) was one of them, showcasing its RightPick2 piece-picking solution for order fulfillment. The newest iteration of the system includes RHR’s fifth-generation intelligent gripper as well as artificial intelligence (AI)-based vision processing software and machine learning. The solution, which includes a commercial robotic picking arm, picks and places individual items using a combination of gripping and suction technology.
One example of the new technology RHR is bringing to the table: a side camera that helps the robotic arm adjust to how an item is situated in a tote so that it can more accurately pick and place the item to avoid damage—just as a human would do.
“We’re developing next-level skills,” explains RHR’s Vince Martinelli, head of product and marketing. He points to the firm’s RightPick Control Center as yet another example of next-level advances. The software program integrates with any commercial warehouse management system (WMS), he explains, to help customers monitor and manage their fleet of RightPick robots. The program’s fleet management dashboard allows customers to drill down into fulfillment exceptions and then pinpoint inefficiencies such as an empty stock tote, a missing receiving tote, or items that can’t be picked through automation.
“More and more of our time is [spent] on the challenges of managing fleets of robots,” Martinelli explains, adding that RHR continues to work closely with WMS providers and integrators to ensure seamless integration into a wider range of material handling systems.
German pick-by-vision solutions provider Picavi introduced its Picavi Cockpit business intelligence solution during the Modex conference, showcasing the system’s ability to provide a “smart guide” that can help users better manage and utilize Picavi’s “smart glasses” technology.
“With Picavi Cockpit, we are taking the next step in vision warehousing. The solution provides features for the generation of smart data as well as the uncomplicated administration and maintenance of smart glasses,” according to Johanna Bellenberg, Picavi’s director of marketing and communications.
Essentially, Picavi Cockpit is a digital enhancement to the company’s pick-by-vision system, which uses Google Glass technology to guide workers through the picking process. Wearing a pair of lightweight glasses, workers remain hands-free, receiving real-time order information via the glasses, which show them where to pick, scan, and place items. The system can also incorporate “ring scanners” for use in environments where items are hard to access or far away. Worn on the worker’s finger, the ring scanners are connected to the smart glasses via Bluetooth technology, and they likewise indicate where to pick, scan, and place items.
Picavi Cockpit takes the system to the next level by incorporating analytics and data-gathering tools that allow managers to monitor the use of the glasses and improve operations and productivity. For example, the system’s mobile device management (MDM) feature allows users to quickly and easily add new smart glasses to their fleet and make software updates to the system wirelessly. A “screen cast” function helps speed employee training by projecting the glasses’ display, in real time, onto computer monitors for simulation and practice.
The analytics function converts big data into smart data, as Picavi explains it. Essentially, sensors on the glasses collect information that can be evaluated in real time, producing customer-specific data such as picks per hour and picks per location, and tracking the movement of order pickers through the distribution center. The information is relayed via Picavi Cockpit’s dashboards so that managers can analyze and act on it.
“This gives you the ability to maximize everything,” Bellenberg explains, adding that Picavi’s goal is to support the human being’s role in the DC as much as possible.
“With automation and robotics, there is still so much to figure out—and it’s a big investment,” she says, emphasizing the importance of the human/machine connection in logistics. “We know that we process 80% of information through our eyes. [This makes] pick-by-vision an ideal combination of technology and natural movements.”
HERE TO STAY
No matter which route a company chooses, it’s clear that applying technology to the picking process is a trend that’s here to stay. DHL Supply Chain was among the many ca represented at Modex that are already using some of the newest systems and solutions on the market. The contract logistics services provider applies a range of technology solutions to picking across its 2,000 global locations, according to Tim Tetzlaff, global head of program and product for DHL’s accelerated digitalization team. He says the large labor element involved in picking makes it the perfect place to apply a wide range of solutions.
“We are working closely with many vendors, [applying] a combination of hardware and software to picking,” explains Tetzlaff, adding that DHL brings those solutions together in a “platform” that can be rolled out and applied to its various locations based on customer need.
Some customers may benefit most from wearable solutions that allow hands-free picking, while others will benefit from more advanced robotic solutions, he says. But they all benefit from a focused approach to applying technology that maximizes the picking function.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. We have to look at where we spend the most on labor” and adopt solutions that address those challenges, Tetzlaff explains.