Automation Systems: Innovation in the Workforce

It all began with Henry Ford and the development of the assembly line. With the creation of this technique of mass production, Ford changed the automobile from being an unrealistic luxury to a practical convenience. And not only has the development of the assembly line made cars available to people all over the world, but it has also been used in the production of modern conveniences and necessities we use daily.

Today, innovation continues to open doors and create possibilities. Robotics are performing surgeries, delivering mail, driving cars, and may soon be used for space travel. But robots that will make dinner or take out the trash are not all that is in store for the future of automation. These incredible modernizations are a little more close to home and are already seen in the workplace.

Warehouse automation as a way of boosting efficiency is becoming the norm, and these systems are becoming increasingly more accurate. Automated shipping systems remove the need for tedious manual processes and replace it with technologies that provide maximum payback with minimal investment. These systems include machines that scan, move, weigh, and label packages on their own to create more efficient and streamlined operations. Many of these machines, which include shipping and labeling systems, conveyors, scales, and scanners, use infrared sensing technologies to ensure precision and accuracy.

These machines are not designed to replace humans, but are created to improve collaboration and productivity in a business and to make life easier and more comfortable for humans. Incorporating these technologies into our lives will create further convenience and allow us to spend our time engaged in more valuable endeavors.

While Henry Ford’s vision was great and paved the way for considerable change and innovation, it remains to be seen if his vision encompassed what we are already seeing today and what will be seen in the near future.

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3 Steps in Selecting the Right Conveyor System

Many people working in warehousing and distribution already incorporate some type of conveyors. These operations often depend on some level of equipment or automation to transport, pack, and ship orders every day.

conveyor systems design

Conveyor Systems – Where and How to Begin

To anyone new to a warehouse or distribution center operation, the task of finding the right conveyors and automation can be a daunting task.

1. Know your product profile

There are several types of conveyors designed for general and specific purposes. The profile and mix of products you want to convey dictates the type of conveyor needed.

To come up with the right solution you must come up with product or package specifications which include:

  • Minimum and maximum L x W x H (or diameter if you have round products)
  • Minimum and maximum weight of your products
  • How many products per minute need to flow on the conveyor system? This may be calculated by total throughput per day, per hour, per shift, etc. Knowing the maximum you have today or need to ramp up to is key
  • Working height of any existing process, existing conveyors or machines that will attach to conveyors or preferred height for a new system
  • Is the purpose to transport products from point A to point B? Or is the solution needed more complex where machine controls and other processes will dictate how products are fed, removed from the conveyor, etc.? The basic question to ask yourself is: Will this be a standalone system/process or is it part of an integrated solution with other processes or machines involved?

2. Know the packaging material or product that will be conveyed

belt conveyor

Belted 24Volt, Zero Pressure Accumulation Conveyor

The type of packaging or raw product that will be conveyed has a major implication on the solution. The examples below apply to general material handling since there are endless variables of packaged goods, outbound shipping, internal processes, etc.

  • Boxes only – A roller conveyor or belt conveyor generally works fine for boxes. The weight and size, throughput needed, etc. will determine if roller, belt over roller, or slider belt conveyor is best.
  • Bags only – As a rule of thumb, it is best to avoid roller conveyor for bags. The exception would be bags that are full and flat on the bottom, the rollers are very close together (1-2″ centers versus typical 3″ centers), or there is mixed product where bags have been tested to flow normally.
  • Mixed boxes and bags – Generally a belt or belt over roller conveyor will be used to accommodate a large product mix.

3. Know your next bottleneck

Conveyors will certainly solve many problems from basic transport of products, merging several lines of production to a single flow, or transforming an operation from fully manual tasks to an automated work of art.

During the design phase (whether a simple or complex system), it is a good idea to review the processes downstream to anticipate any new bottlenecks that may be created. Often times productivity increases dramatically and an additional solution may be needed for processes such as scanning, weighing, dimensioning, taping, etc. If any of these processes are manual inputs, it is easy to see how operators may not be able to keep up with the new and faster upstream process.

 Quick References

Below is a table showing a few types of conveyors mentioned in this article.

Conveyor Type

Typical Application

Key Benefits

24V DC motor driven roller conveyor Transport, accumulation, boxes and flat items Easy setup, low power consumption, no external controls required
24V DC motor driven belted conveyor Transport, accumulation, boxes, bags, or irregular items Easy setup, low power consumption, no external controls required
Slider bed Basic transport for boxes, bags, or irregular items Many types and sizes available, ideal for transport where start/stop is not frequent
Belt over roller Heavier duty for boxes and items with higher weight variance or Wide variety of product sizes on a single belt, lower friction than slider bed due to belt over rollers
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Optimizing your WMS with Weight and Dimensional Data Saves Time and Material

A few questions worth your time if you have inventory.

  1. How many unique SKUs to you have in your warehouse? and…
  2. Do you have weight and dimensional data for each?

If your answer to #2 above is I am not sure, the more compelling questions become:

  1. How much does wasted space in storage racks cost per square/cubic foot?
  2. How much extra packaging material is being wasted on shipping, and how much money does that translate in both packing materials and shipping costs?

2 Examples of Optimizing SKU data for Storage and Packing Optimization

 

Using a Cubing Device to Capture Weights and Dimensions of Item, Inner Carton, and Master Carton with Amazing Accuracy

 Using a Weighing/Cubing Device for On-Demand Packaging

Conclusion: Weights and dimensional data are vital to inbound and outbound operations. Aside from labor and material costs, these devices also present a means to any green initiative to save natural resources and fuel costs. More information on the devices shows may be found at CubiScan‘s website.

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5 Simple Solutions to Optimize Labor and Accuracy in Distribution

Not all improvements to an operation need be huge investments. There are often [simple] solutions for small and growing businesses that are scalable and applicable to large distribution operations as well. The key in analyzing what will solve problems now as well as address future growth is to understand how each product or solution is able to evolve or provide modular improvement so that the evolution and growth is met with systems and equipment that continues maximized productivity.

The 2 factors that justify a return are typically 1) labor savings, and 2) accuracy gains in order fulfillment, reducing errors in manual inputs, etc.

Keeping it Real [Simple]

Here are 5 simple, yet effective solutions that still deliver as output increases without necessarily requiring more labor.

print-apply-labeling

1) Add Automated Labeling for Outbound ShippingPrint and apply labeling systems are an excellent way to reduce labor in applying shipping labels to boxes. The processes before and after are easily managed manually for smaller operations, while higher volume DC’s would typically add automatic scanning and verification to this process.

Typical volume to justify: 300+ cartons per day
Capacity per shift: Depending on box sizes and data speeds, a safe bet is 600+ per hour

weigh in motion systems

2) Add a checkweigher - The process of weighing is a task that is easily automated. A standalone system to ID, check shipping weight, and even verify the expected weight (picking verification) is a great asset to any distribution center. Wrong weights associated with an order can lead to chargebacks from carriers, adding more cost to the operation and administration.

OCS Checkweighers, a manufacturer of high-speed weighing systems, noted a project observed over several years that the customer realized a very fast return on investment:

“The system upgrades made with OCS scales to the high speed sortation systems in their largest DC’s have paid for themselves in less than 4 months of operation, and continue to provide a high revenue stream many years later.”

Typical volume to justify: 300+ cartons per day. A standalone checkweigher system can be manually fed from packing stations and then each carton accumulated after the checkweigher on gravity or other area for shipping.
Capacity per shift: Most checkweighers can easily handle 15-30 cartons per minute depending on induction and downstream conditions.

3) Add cubing/dimensioning - If your DC ships air freight, listen up! Dimensional weight is an extremely important factor. You are billed by a formula that calculates the weight of the carton but also factors the size of the carton in relation to the weight.

There are both motion-based cubing systems as well as static systems that can be used to capture the weights and dimensions of shipments.

According to a recent case study found at CubiScan’s website,

50% productivity gains in automatically capturing dimensional data may be gained over manual operations.

Typical volume to justify: 100+ cartons per day for static systems, 500+ per day for motion-based systems
Capacity per shift: Static systems – 300-400 per hour, Motion based systems – 600 to 2500+ per hour

Honey well Image

4) Add RF Terminals – Most fulfillment operations use a WMS or other means to drive order picking processes. Assuming your operation uses paper to have workers pick orders, using RF terminals and some picking logic will save time and money. Operators are directed by the device to pick locations. Whether or not you utilize conveyors, RF terminals are a great way to get away from paper and the headaches of sorting out which items to pick first.

I asked David Edwards, President of Texas Barcode Systems about efficiency gains using RF terminals versus paper. David replied,

“We have seen companies enjoy productivity gains in daily operations in the 25-35% range with use of barcode equipment and hardware”.

There are other applications where paper and pen make very little sense as well. David provided another example where the same terminals may be used for inventory control:

“Based on hardware and software working hand in hand, most companies appreciate an inventory accuracy increase in the 98-99% range over traditional pen and paper inventory controls.”

Typical volume to justify: If you have more than 2 people picking orders with paper or other archaic process, this is something worth looking into.
Capacity per unit: Depending on the size of the warehouse, picking zone, or inventory area a worker is assigned, a good rule of thumb is 25-35% increased efficiency per user.

5) Add Automated Scanning – A fixed mount scanning system can reduce the time it takes to hand scan barcodes. A typical operation uses a barcode either on the invoice or on the carton to uniquely ID the order and contents. Implementing a license plate barcode (LP) at the carton level is a great first step even if hand scanning is used. This ties everything to the carton versus the paperwork that goes inside the carton and will reduce handling mistakes.

 Typical volume to justify: 300+ per day can easily justify using a fixed scanner. Any DC that is using powered conveyors should be using fixed scanners if not already part of the operation.
Capacity per unit: Fixed scanners will typically outperform the volume of orders and conveyor speed. The variables are barcode size, type, and conveyor speed, but a rule of thumb is that automated scanners will not be a choke point.

Conclusion

With all the fully automated systems that many large facilities utilize, it is easy to think that all these solutions are expensive. When viewed as modular solutions, or systems that can easily be added to over time, the bite size approach works for many up and coming facilities to overcome inefficient labor and mistakes that cost time and money.

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Infographic: Mega Warehouses Around the World

Have you ever considered what it takes to get products from Point A to Point B? Ever consider the massive amount of technology that goes into every ecommerce transaction millions of times a day?

This infographic shows some of the largest warehouses and distribution operations on the planet.

Mega Warehouses Arond the World - QMI Services

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Summer: The Calm Before the Storm in Material Handling

Summer: The Calm Before the Storm in Material Handling Projects

The material handling industry serves many types of businesses – everything from big warehouse and distribution centers, mom and pop internet companies, food and beverage, and much more. Material handling, as it relates to serving distribution centers can be very cyclical. During boom times, it seems very steady throughout the year and everything is in constant motion. During economic downturns many areas within distribution often experience feast or famine conditions where there are extreme ups and downs with very little predictability.

There are two general trends that often occur for warehouses and DC’s during 2 very critical times of year:

  1. Summer. In material handling planning, summer can be a crucial time to finalize planning and execution of projects for the upcoming busy season.
  2. Christmas rush. By the time October hits, everyone wants [needs] their projects installed yesterday.

Reality Check:

Summer Explained

People tend to travel much more in the summer. More importantly, key personnel such as project leads and executives who would sign off on projects are potentially absent, thus stalling the process. This makes it more difficult for key decisions that keep new projects in motion. Many projects are not approved until late summer, which puts pressure on material handling companies to deliver on a shorter timeline.

YOU WANT IT WHEN?Christmas Rush

“…but we need it delivered in 2 weeks!” Unfortunately this is a not-too-uncommon occurrence. The calendar has mysteriously jumped 3 months – all of the sudden that comfortable 8 week lead time has  vanished into thin air.

Most distribution picks up heavily between Halloween and end of year. Small internet companies all the way through Fortune 100 companies must step up operations to meet the peak ordering season. If you waited until September or October to pull the trigger on your project, you will most likely risk scheduling and execution challenges in trying to push for a quick installation.

HERO!Recommendations for Saving the Day [Season]:

  1. Don’t procrastinate! Proper material handling execution requires lead times for providers to design, procure, build, and install your project. Although quoting and purchases may happen quickly at times, critical project details too often are left out until late in the project which can be detrimental to keeping promises of lead times and time spent for installation and commissioning.
  2. Plan.The first part of the year (or beginning of fiscal cycle) is a good time to review pending projects, budgets, and timelines. The more cushion you can give your material handling company, the easier it is for them to commit to all milestones. Make sure you add at least a couple of weeks of cushion for startup, training, and other affected stakeholders to ensure implementation is fully debugged before the peak busy season. Review calendars well in advance to see if key people are going to be absent during critical phases on the purchasing process.You must keep in mind that most material handling providers have multiple projects quoted for the same projected installation timelines. It becomes very difficult to manage timelines and resources when everyone wants everything at the same time. There is no better boost for a successful project than planning.
  3. Enjoy! Once your project is installed and implemented, you now have time to ramp up to your peak volumes instead of trying to handle increased demand while using valuable floorspace to receive, install, test, and change to the new processes.

Automation projects can in fact run very smoothly. Planning, communication, resource scheduling, and timelines can make all the difference in the world to both customer and material handling provider in forming and maintaining a solid business relationship. The goals of both customer and provider are to increase productivity, lessen mistakes in manual processes, and realize an excellent payback in as short of time possible.

 

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2 Great Reasons Why Every Warehouse and Distribution Center Needs Automation

Automation in the Warehouse and DC

There are hundreds of good reasons that every warehouse and distribution center should consider automation; at least to some degree. Most businesses start out as fairly small operations. As the business grows, people are added, short processes become full time jobs, and peak seasons dictate the use of temporary labor. The addition of labor, training new employees or temps, and overhead costs can quickly reduce efficiency and bottom line profitability.

Reason 1. Order Processing Inefficiencies

As people and manual processes are added, mistakes typically increase as well. One of the first places warehouse and distribution operations should look towards automation by getting rid of paper.

Here are two low cost/low tech ways to get rid of paper in the order fulfillment process:

  1. Use RF scanners to pick orders. RF terminals and scanners are much less money than even a few years ago. There is also a great market of refurbished units that can cut costs further. You will need software to bridge between whatever host or ordering software is used and the scanners. A picking application will also need to be written or interfaced to these devices.
  2. Use light duty computers and handheld scanners to pack orders. Pack station operations that use paper to review order information and QC are extremely inefficient. With the use of barcodes and order identification, orders are easily viewed with a computer monitor. Even though the process of checking order is still manual, there is no paper to shuffle. However, a final invoice or packing slip may be printed once the order is validated and added to the shipping carton for final pack.

Reason 2. Adding More Workers Adds Cost and Less Incremental Return than Automation

Growing pains are going to happen. Adding to that pain should be avoided. Adding bodies to a process does not necessarily make it more efficient. The idea with automation is not merely to “reduce head count”, it is to “optimize head count”. Workers are far more productive when their tasks add meaningful value to the overall operation.

Here are some ideas to maximize the current workforce.

End of line shipping and manifest processes. This area is typically ignored. Most operations tend to add more manual manifest stations rather than optimize the process. A simple 10-20 feet of automation can solve a lot of processes with 1-2 people, where 2-6 (or more in larger operations) are required to provide these tasks manually.

Typical systems will include:

  1. Barcode scanning to ID a shipping carton (or other packaging)
  2. Inline weighing to capture the weight of the shipment automatically
  3. Optional cubing if the warehouse does not use fixed sizes in shipping cartons
  4. Automatic print and apply of the shipping label
  5. Verification scan of the shipping label
  6. Interface software to report data to a host system and/or shipping software
  7. Conveyor to induct, process, and discharge shipments

Sortation of shipments by carrier or service type. Whether packing and manifest are manual or automated, a simple scan of a barcode can direct conveyor to transport and sort to 2 or more shipping lanes. Simple diverts, transfers, or specialized sorters are used to sort packages to the proper shipping lane. This can have an impact on shipping costs, presort discounts (for the 22 USPS presort locations for those shipping heavy USPS).

Sorting applications:

  1. Simple pass/fail. Used to accept or reject a shipment based on barcode scan, exceptions such as manual validation for high cost shipments, etc.
  2. Sort by carrier. A simple sort for commons carriers, store locations, etc. may be used. Easy programming is used to know the different barcodes, lookups for destinations or carrier, or other business rules to sort.
  3. Multiple sort locations. This may be used in larger environments and DC’s shipping thousands of boxes per day. Locations may include carrier, service level, store location, presort locations, or any number of combinations.

Conclusion

Every warehouse and distribution center is unique in some way. Variables such as product mix, SKU count, number of items per order, size of products, and overall daily volume and seasonality all play significant roles in choosing the best steps forward towards automation. One thing is certain: the technology available and ability to work your way into automation over the long haul should all be on the front burner of any warehouse or distribution center strategy and master plan.

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QMI Services, the Newest Addition to Quantronix, Inc.

December 3, 2012 Farmington, UT
Quantronix welcomes QMI Services as the new systems group for material handling integration projects. The new company focuses on integration of many types of hardware and software systems within the order fulfillment process. The specialty company is a provider of end of line (EOL) processes.

QMI is short for Quantronix Material Handling Integration. The company was created as a sister company to our CubiScan brand in response to loyal customers who wanted CubiScan to lead integration projects where its equipment was being implemented. With 20+ years of expertise in core competencies such as cubing, in-motion scanning, and data integration, the expanded focus includes integrated shipping manifest, in-motion weighing/cubing, and other systems as standard offerings rather than fragmenting these processes between several parties.

Quantronix may be reached at:
+1 801-451-7000
380 S. 200 W.
PO Box 929
Farmington, UT 84025

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