BlogSupply Chain AutomationAutomated case picking through robotics

When the financial crisis hit in 2008, I took advantage of my G.I. Bill and student aid to go back to school. But I still had to make payments and was often forced to do day labor in order to make ends meet. One of the most commonly available jobs was in the warehouse of a local automotive supplier where we picked cases and packed them onto pallets. It usually didn’t go well. The quality of the personnel available for day labor hire typically isn’t good, and case picking calls for attention to detail. Eventually, even workers that did care would struggle to finish an order due to the aches caused by stooping and carrying cartons all day.

Since pickers and packers are often the most junior employees and aren’t typically well-trained, problems in order fulfillment are common.

Picking cartons and packing them manually didn’t serve us or our employer very well. Orders were often inaccurate and pallets poorly packed. My situation wasn’t unusual, either. Since pickers and packers are often the most junior employees and aren’t typically well-trained, problems in order fulfillment are common. One solution is automated case picking, which offers companies relief from the above concerns and spares companies that employ industrial automation the hassle of trying to efficiently pack mixed-case pallets.

How Case Picking Works

Case picking is, in layman’s speak, pulling boxes of product off several different single-product pallets and wrapping the picked products together on a single pallet for shipment. It’s a process that takes place at distribution centers and production facilities with many different types of products, and, in many warehouses, it’s still done manually. Workers consult an order invoice for the SKU number, the product description, and the quantity required, then move from point to point, picking the cartons that meet these specifications and creating the mixed-case load as they go. This means that the accuracy of what’s picked and the way the load is palletized is entirely up to the worker, leading to issues such as:

  • Inaccurate Pick: Warehouse workers are almost always in a hurry and may grab cartons of the wrong product when they’re doing the pick. This causes the order from the client to go unfulfilled and means that the wrong product must be returned and replaced, wasting time and money on transportation.
  • Unstable Stack: It can be difficult for a harried warehouse worker to configure cartons on the fly and create a stable stack on the pallet. When employees are unwilling to stop and reorganize the stack, they often make up for the lack of stability with large amounts of plastic wrap. The result is an unstable pallet that may come apart during shipment or handling and damage product or cause injuries.
  • Short Stack: Conscientious workers who are loading a pallet may stop short of filling it to capacity in order to keep it stable. While short stacking helps keep the pallet and products safe, it means that additional time–as well as travel and effort–must be taken to fulfill the order.

Improvements in case picking have largely focused on improving the speed and accuracy of the pick. For instance, scanners–rather than human eyes and memory–are now often used to check product SKUs against the invoice. Another example is voice picking, in which a digital voice reads the inventory to the worker and only records fulfillment when the worker reads the quantity back, to enforce mindfulness. However, neither of these solutions really push throughput higher or address shortcomings in palletizing products. To do this, many companies turn to automated case picking.

Automated Case Picking for Creating Mixed-Case Pallets

Conveyors can help with case picking and palletizing.Efficient mixed-case loading is much more complicated than stacking cartons of the same dimensions efficiently, and until recently, artificial intelligence and robotics weren’t up to the task. You’ll still find that automated case picking is more common in warehouses that deal in single-SKU pallet loads and less prevalent in distribution centers and production centers that ship mixed loads. However, the technology has improved and there are now several options for automated case picking and palletizing at the load unit level:

  • Mechanized Case Picking: Case picking through the use of conveyor belts and actuators predates modern computing. These case pickers are simply in-line sorters that manipulate cartons using a variety of bumpers, servos, and switches to align them correctly for stability. Similar systems have been used in single-SKU palletizing for decades, but, equipped with better scanners and context-sensitive actuators, they are now effective for mixed-case palletizing. They have the advantage of very high throughput, but take up a lot of space.
  • Robotic Case Picking: Robotic case picking differs from purely mechanical automated picking in its versatility and range. Robotic arms in fixed positions can grip cartons in multiple ways and maneuver them. They have the advantage of flexibility, but move more slowly than conveyor-based systems.
  • Combination Case Picking: The most effective form of automated case picking combines traditional mechanized systems with smart software for guidance, while using robotic automation at key points. Combining the two brings the traditional speed of mechanized picking, with its cartons whizzing down conveyors, along with the flexibility of articulated robot arms that are able to move cartons into any position or orientation. The addition of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) means that cases, pallets, and components can be shuttled from point to point automatically.

Utilizing any or a combination of these automated case picking systems will not only improve the accuracy of your pick, but it will also speed up your warehouse throughput, a key advantage in today’s fast-moving supply chains. These benefits can be capitalized on by choosing different automated systems for different areas of the warehouse, strategically combining automated systems, and supporting them with more efficient equipment.

The Advantages of Automated Case Picking

Automated conveyors can help with picking and packing loads.The advantages of automated case picking are numerous. A distribution center using automated case picking, rather than manual picking and packing, has higher throughput, as well as higher pick accuracy and greater pallet stability. Although automated logistics systems tend to be a significant investment, they pay off not only in the form of reduced labor costs, but also in increased efficiency, fewer mistakes filling orders, and reduced product damage during transportation. Automated case picking creates stable mixed pallets that are loaded as close to the weight limit as possible. However, the benefits of automated picking can be undermined by an unreliable shipping platform.

For example, if a mixed case is built on a pallet that is unstable because of broken boards, then the consistency of automated case picking and palletizing is wasted. To make the most of supply chain automation, it’s important to use a shipping platform that’s as dependable as your automated system.

Plastic pallets are engineered to tight tolerances which are ideal for use in automated systems.

The iGPS plastic pallet is designed and built to support automated systems, including automated case picking systems. It is capable of making 80-100 trips before needing replacement. Using the iGPS plastic pallet instead of a block or white wood pallet helps prevent pallet failures that can destabilize a load, and does away with the nails and loose pieces of wood that wood pallets shed and that can cause machinery damage and downtime.

Plastic pallets are also engineered to tight tolerances which are ideal for use in automated systems. While the dimensions and weight of wood pallets can change as they absorb moisture or are repaired, plastic pallets are consistent in size, shape, and weight. Using a lightweight plastic shipping platform can increase the efficiency and reliability of automated case picking and all warehouse automated systems. The only real drawback of plastic pallets is that they can be difficult to obtain and manage in the quantities needed. That’s where plastic pallet pooling comes in. A plastic pallet rental program like iGPS’s can deliver and recover pallets as needed to keep your automated systems running smoothly.

The iGPS pallet pool offers lightweight, reusable plastic pallets that can be rented by the batch. To get the most out of your automated case picking system, give our team a call at 1-800-884-0225, email a specialist at [email protected], or visit our contact page.