CeMAT 2020, 20 - 24 April
Retail and E-Commerce

Efficient logistics for electronic and omnichannel commerce

Automation trends in order picking and returns management

13 Apr. 2018
Conventional shelving racks can be easily automated using autonomous warehouse robots. (Image: viastore)

The German association of package and express logistics (BIEK) estimates a volume of more than 3.3 billion shipments in 2017 – an 8 to 10 percent increase over the previous year. This is mainly due to the huge growth of eCommerce, with ever fewer shoppers finding their way to stores here in Germany, and choosing instead to make their purchases online. Customers are also buying less, but more frequently.

These trends have an impact on logistics, with ever smaller units needing to be processed with greater speed and complexity for delivery to the end customer. Returns handling is another aspect, with the aim of making the product available as quickly as possible again. The average return rate in this sector is between 40 and 50 percent. Another trend involves the ever faster delivery times expected by consumers. Logistics centers must process orders fast enough so that even those placed as late as 4 PM can leave the same day.

When a logistics center needs to supply stores as well as end customers, the trend is towards ever more flexible automation solutions for in-house transport, storage, order picking and returns management.

In terms of capacity and efficiency, one flexible solution for storing flat-packed goods in containers or boxes is compact small parts storage served by single- or multi-level shuttles. These systems' capacity can be flexibly scaled by the number of shuttles and passageways. At CeMAT 2018, for example, SSI Schäfer and Austrian firm Knapp are presenting their latest shuttle models, that set new benchmarks for energy efficiency and performance. At the Vanderlande and Toyota stand, a goods-to-person order processing system is on show that also uses shuttles to place and remove products.

An ever more popular solution for order picking and returns management comes from overhead conveyor technology: Lightweight goods with high turnover can be transported, dynamically buffered and sequenced using pouch sorters. Bags or items attached to such an overhead conveyor can reach throughput speeds of up to 10,000 pouches per hour. SSI Schäfer and Vanderlande/Toyota are exhibiting innovations in this field.

Another trend involves using small, driverless transport vehicles to move containers and boxes, with an attachment that adapts them for overhead systems. These in-house transport systems are flexible, scalable and can be installed without major effort. There are many suppliers in this segment, including Bito, Grenzebach, Kuka/Swisslog, SSI Schäfer, Torwegge, Toyota and others.

Order picking robots are also gaining ground in the market, as demonstrated by Munich-based startup Magazino's success. Established firms in the intralogistics sector, such as Vanderlande and viastore, also offer flexible, easy to implement solutions for order picking with boxes and containers as well as single items and other package types.

Omnichannel challenge

Omnichannel businesses accept orders through online stores and apps, as well as those placed in stores and by sales staff in the ERP system. Customer service and returns are also handled online. Logistically it is no small feat for a central warehouse that previously supplied a few hundred stores with products, to pick and package orders for shipping directly to customers. A multitude of highly variable parameters are in play: number of orders, order structure (position, number), order reception, number of items, packaging choice and the size of shipping units (pallets or trolleys, packages, packets and bags). Creating efficient logistics for all channels in the long term requires an integrated omnichannel distribution center.

Rational goods processing relies on high performance storage, order picking and sorting engineering, as well as the right software for the job. Storage and material flow software must organize, prioritize, manage and process incoming orders from all different channels. It also manages storage technology such as shuttles, storage and retrieval vehicles, materials handling, sorters and other mechanical components, as well as piloting and visualizing complex material flow systems.