Fast Track Fulfillment

Automating your DC to Speed Up Delivery

lindsey rooney

For retailers struggling to speed up the last mile of delivery, it could be productive to look backward. The so-called “middle mile of logistics,” where products travel from a factory or port to a distribution or fulfillment center, is ripe for the type of performance enhancements that modern automation can yield. At the heart of that mile is the distribution center (DC), which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce describes in a recent report as “an increasingly integral part of the U.S. economy.”

Amidst the explosive growth of e-commerce over the past few years, DCs have proved efficient at orchestrating the flow of goods purchased both online and in-store. With a continued surge of online purchasing expected, many companies view DCs as key to their omnichannel fulfillment strategy.

fast track fulfillmentHeavy Investment Pours into DCs

In November 2023, UPS Supply Chain Solutions opened a technologically advanced facility named Velocity in Shepherdsville, KY. UPS explained in a video that Velocity moves “over 350,000 units through 900,000 square feet of space every day.” To achieve this rapid pace, the company utilizes 700 bots empowered by AI to help with processing.

Walmart is also bolstering its DCs, aiming to enhance same-day delivery options for its customers. In a news story, the company wrote, “We continue to rapidly expand the use of next-generation technology in our distribution centers. This year, over 15% of stores will receive merchandise from automated distribution centers, helping to get items off trucks and onto the sales floor faster and more efficiently.”

These recent moves by UPS and Walmart highlight the trend of massive corporate investment in DCs. “DCs are not traditional warehouses,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce states in its report on fulfillment centers. “These high-tech distribution hubs require the businesses that open them to invest hundreds of millions of dollars. That includes investment in the buildings, as well as the advanced technological, safety and logistical equipment used in DCs to carry out their complex processes.”

Despite lacking the goliath budget of UPS and Walmart, smaller firms must compete with their brisk fulfillment speed to please increasingly impatient customers. For many, a state-of-the-art DC is out of the realm of possibility. However, a variety of modern automation solutions can help revolutionize smaller DCs and deliver ROI.

Get the First Automation Step Right

With the ongoing labor shortage in DCs and fulfillment centers, most companies can’t afford to pass on automation. Luke Nuber is a senior account executive for MHI member DLN Integrated Systems. As an independent systems integrator, DLN is familiar with its clients’ labor woes. “Everyone is struggling to find enough labor to reliably staff their operation and coming to the realization that we are dealing with a generational labor shortage that is resilient to short-term economic fluctuations,” Nuber said. “Good financial returns are still important, but employers are fighting a daily battle to staff their operations, so anything that can relieve some of that pressure will be seeing increased demand.”

For newcomers to automation, there are advantages to starting with a clean slate. Josh Cloer, director of sales for MHI member Mujin Corp., said that smaller-volume DCs have “a unique opportunity to re-imagine the ideal process with the latest technology in mind. Many DCs are limited in the adoption of technology because of large infrastructure investments that were made in the past,” Cloer stated.

In contrast, DCs dipping their toes into automation can take advantage of flexible mobile robotic platforms and control technologies. “Companies that do have a ‘blank canvas’ are benefiting greatly across their entire distribution process,” Cloer said.

“In most cases, adding any type of automation will lead to gains within the DC,” said Dennis Andre, director of automation for MHI member enVista. However, given the numerous automation choices available, companies need to be very strategic. “If the automation isn’t done with a plan in place and with a view of the full operation, the full potential of the investment isn’t always seen,” Andre said.

He cites the example of a company adding automation to their packing process without considering how it affects other operations. “The packing process efficiency will increase,” Andre said, “but it may flood and create a bottleneck at shipping. The packing process may also become starved if the picking process isn’t able to keep up with the increased efficiency of the new automation, thus not utilizing the full potential of the automation.”

To narrow down your automation choices, Cloer of Mujin advises: “When initiating automation in a DC, the first step should be to strategically address the most costly and problematic situations within the warehouse. It is beneficial to start by tackling pain points and introducing automation to alleviate those specific challenges.”

Using automation to eliminate dangerous tasks is another way to prioritize where automation is most needed. “Automation is best in tasks that are travel-intensive, simple, repetitive, heavy, in harsh environments or dangerous,” said Nuber. However, he also recommends that companies work to limit physical interaction between automated systems and robots. “While great strides have been made in technologies that allow automation to safely work alongside human workers in the last 5-10 years, even the best of them need to slow down to avoid dangerous collisions that negatively impact productivity.”

Cloer, whose company is a provider of robotics technology, also emphasized the profound effect that robotic automation can have on the overall safety of a DC. “The solutions offered by robots involve replacing some of the most perilous tasks in the warehouse. This not only provides immediate safety benefits but also enhances ergonomic conditions, ensuring that humans are no longer exposed to risky situations.”

Streamlining the Receiving Process

In DCs, robots are starting to make headway in the unloading and depalletizing processes. Mujin’s TruckBot, an autonomous robot, is designed to attach to standard telescoping conveyors at loading docks. Mujin states that it “can unload both truck trailers and shipping containers at a rate of up to 1,000 cases per hour.”

The TruckBot is powered by the MujinController. Unlike many other products that use machine learning (ML), the MujinController is built upon machine intelligence (MI). Cloer explains that an advantage of MI is that it improves robotics accuracy. “While ML involves a more manual and error-prone process, MI employs a structured approach, leveraging real-time data and a well-defined algorithmic framework. This distinction not only affects the reliability of outputs but also plays a crucial role in the ease of error identification and correction, particularly in applications such as robotics where precision is paramount,’ said Cloer.

MI is also the brains behind Mujin’s QuickBot, which is an automated solution for depalletizing single and mixed-case loads. This plug-and-play robotic case handler comes equipped with an integrated safety system and a conveyor that connects to a facility’s existing conveyor. The QuickBot can automatically register new cases and SKUs. According to Mujin, the QuickBot can depalletize 1,000 single cases per hour or 600 mixed cases per hour.

MHI member Signode also offers depalletizing solutions. Its Simplimatic systems can unload single or multiple pallets simultaneously and pair a variety of custom tooling with sensitive sensors to allow for precise handling of a wide range of products. The depalletizer also uses vision technology to pinpoint products, enabling adaptive learning for newly introduced items and enhancing system flexibility.

In addition to expediting depalletizing, automated solutions can also help reduce injuries at the loading dock—the area traditionally viewed as the most dangerous part of a facility. The supply chain’s rapid growth over the last few years has, unfortunately, been accompanied by a rise in fatalities. According to the “National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries in 2022” report: “Workers in transportation and material moving occupations experienced 1,620 fatal work injuries in 2022 and represented the occupational group with the most fatalities.” This was an increase of 97 fatalities compared to 2021.

In addition to fatalities, there has also been a rise of illness and injuries in the material handling industry. In July 2023, citing a marked uptick, OSHA announced a national emphasis program to help prevent workplace hazards in warehouses and DCs. Moving forward, smart automation can enable facilities to increase volume and speed without compromising worker safety.

Accelerating the Pick

Partially due to its ability to relieve humans from picking at high and low elevations, automated and storage retrieval systems (AS/RS) systems are becoming increasingly necessary for DCs. Shawn Semer, director of global automation sales and marketing for Signode, explains that customers seeking an AS/RS “achieve value from these systems by improving the overall service of fulfilling orders, accuracy in time to serve the goods and reducing the risk of accidents with manual labor.”

With options ranging from horizontal carousels to vertical lift modules to robotic storage retrieval systems, the highly configurable nature of an AS/RS makes them appealing to a wide range of DCs. Signode has seen a growing interest in high density systems with double shuttles over the past few years. “The strength of these solutions includes high efficiency, small motors, easy maintenance, high throughput and competitive pricing,” Semer said.

SKU proliferation is another factor driving the need for AS/RS and other dense storage solutions. With customers demanding various color and size options for each product, companies are forced to manage an increased number of SKUs. Nuber of DLN Integrated Systems explains that in a manual pick process, the high number of SKUs creates a lot of walking for employees and long cycle times. “We’ve addressed this challenge with a wide range of solutions, from basic pick modules and sortation up to robotic goods-to-person solutions. The common thread is to store and retrieve items densely and efficiently and bring them to a stationary operator that is building order cartons or pallets,” Nuber said.

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