Photo credit: PHOTO COURTESY OF DEMATIC
Labor challenges and productivity demands have long been pushing business leaders to adopt automated solutions for their warehouses and distribution centers, a trend that accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic and that shows no signs of abating as 2022 gets underway. Goods-to-person (GTP) picking systems are among the most popular and easiest ways to automate, as both traditional and more advanced systems can yield results quickly and put companies well on their way to meeting their operational goals.
Recent studies attest to those benefits. Gartner research from 2021 predicted that demand for robotic GTP systems would quadruple through 2023, largely to deal with labor challenges. Such systems address the need for social distancing by moving goods from one person to another—and doing it so efficiently that they increase productivity and improve storage density along the way, according to Gartner.
“While the social distancing aspect is an imminent benefit, robotic GTP systems will provide value long after the pandemic is over,” Gartner Analyst Dwight Klappich said in an April 2021 Gartner.com article. “This technology is advanced and economical, and can easily be tailored to work in every kind of warehouse environment.”
But what exactly are GTP systems—robotic or otherwise—and how do they work? Here’s a back-to-basics look at some of the types of GTP technology available today and the benefits they can bring to material handling operations.
Essentially, goods-to-person picking systems deliver items to an operator, so that the operator doesn’t have to travel between locations in a facility. They can be used in retail operations, in warehouses and fulfillment centers, in point-of-use applications in manufacturing and packaging operations, and, increasingly, for merchandise returns. E-commerce fulfillment centers are seeing among the highest rates of GTP adoption, driven mainly by the accelerated growth of online buying since the spring of 2020. The situation was especially acute in the grocery market, where demand for microfulfillment systems—highly automated, small-footprint systems located close to the end-consumer—has skyrocketed over the past two years, according to Kevin Reader, vice president of marketing for logistics solutions provider Knapp. Up-to-the-minute ordering and expectations of fast delivery are driving the need.
“In an environment that’s constantly demanding later order windows during the day and next-day delivery—there’s not much of an option,” Reader says, emphasizing the growth in demand for GTP systems in general. “[This technology] is becoming almost table stakes.”
GTP systems fall into two general categories: 1) Traditional systems such as horizontal or vertical carousels, which present items to pickers in a warehouse or DC operation, as well as vertical lift modules (VLMs), which take advantage of a facility’s ceiling height to store and present items to workers; and 2) More advanced, high-density solutions, including shuttle-based systems and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS), which deliver products to a worker at a pick station. Some advanced solutions also use autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to deliver products to workers.
Logistics solutions providers work with customers to select the best type of system for their particular application.
Determining the best system hinges on the particular “use case” in the market, according to Laura Bickle, senior offering manager for Honeywell Intelligrated’s warehouse execution software (WES). Use cases can include e-commerce order fulfillment, retail or store fulfillment, omnichannel and combination applications, buffer systems (which accumulate units for grouping, such as for palletization and cartonization), and inventory management. Bickle explains that at Honeywell, GTP stations can be used for multiple functions, including picking items for orders, putting away inventory (for example, replenishing an AS/RS by decanting items from vendor cases into plastic totes that are stored in the AS/RS), and conducting inventory cycle counts.
And although each use case is different, there are some guiding principles for determining the best system for a particular organization.
“There are several factors that need to be considered,” according to Bickle. “What type of products are in the system? How much space is available? What is the density? What is the desired throughput? How are orders to be filled—retail or e-commerce? How many different zones is product coming from, and is buffering needed?”
Bruce Bleikamp, director of product management for material handling solutions provider MHS, agrees, emphasizing that data is the most important part of developing a solution—lots of data.
“We like to look at the orders,” Bleikamp explains. “We typically ask for a year’s worth of data. What are they moving? How many? How is it packaged? … These are things we have to understand. So we ask for a lot of data.”
Reader, of Knapp, adds that it’s also important to understand the role existing software plays in an organization, along with overarching business considerations, and the ebb and flow of orders through the facility.
“Understanding all those elements and the interplay with machine capacity is really critical to making these systems work effectively,” he says.
Productivity improvement is the primary benefit of installing a GTP system, as these systems allow more picks per operator and help boost overall facility throughput. This is especially beneficial in a tight labor market, Bleikamp points out.
“Everyone is struggling with the ability to get labor,” he says, especially in the warehouse and DC, where picking tasks often involve heavy lifting, lots of walking, and repetitive actions that can lead to stress and injuries. “It’s hard to get people [for those positions], so you have to do more with the resources you have. Automating helps with that.”
Chris Steiner, Americas vice president of solution development for logistics solutions provider Dematic, adds that reducing workers’ travel time through a facility drastically increases performance levels. In a manual operation, a worker typically picks about 100 pieces per hour; reducing travel time via automation can increase that volume up to 700 or more per hour, he says.
“The most expensive parts of the fulfillment supply chain are the first 100 yards and the last mile,” Steiner explains. “[Goods-to-person picking systems] help eliminate that first 100 yards.”
Although labor optimization is key, order quality is “the next frontier” when it comes to benefits and improvements, Steiner adds. Because inventory is tracked, presented, and typically confirmed by the automated system, order fulfillment accuracy skyrockets. What’s more, the controlled environment typically means less product damage and fewer errors. Assisted by the system, workers are less fatigued and make fewer mistakes—all in a better working environment.
“Generally, [these systems] are ergonomic in nature, so it’s a good working environment, which helps with quality [and] employee retention,” Steiner adds.
As technology evolves, GTP systems are becoming more high-tech and driven by advanced software systems and controls. Reader says there’s been an increase in demand for GTP systems of all types, but particularly in systems that include robotic picking—those that use robotics to automate tasks that require manipulating individual items, as opposed to automating transportation through a facility. Such systems require artificial intelligence (AI), vision systems, cloud technology, and the like to automate the complex tasks of selecting products for an order.
Steiner adds that there’s also growing interest in collaborative robotic solutions—in which robots work alongside associates for picking and related tasks—as well as goods-to-robot solutions, or a combination of both, depending on the organization’s needs and goals. He says many customers are looking to create the right mix of solutions that justify the investment in advanced technology.
“[Customers will] mix robotic picking … with goods-to-person picking,” using robotic picking for steady, non-peak demands, and adding workers during busier periods, he says.
Whatever the mix or level of automation, the experts say demand for GTP systems and their more advanced and evolving counterparts is only set to accelerate over the next few years.
“It’s almost a perfect storm of macro-economic drivers that are driving the need for increased efficiency in the fulfillment space,” Steiner adds, circling back to the labor shortage and supply chain delays that have plagued companies over the past year or so. “But I think it’s consumer behavior that has changed the most. … From the beginning of the pandemic, e-commerce [saw] about eight years’ worth of growth in three months and [that] has continued; it hasn’t leveled off. That has created a significant space of demand that is affecting the [service level agreements] of our customers to their customers, and, in turn, continues to drive the need for increased investment in this type of technology.”