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Will fully automated order picking systems replace warehouse workers?

Order pickers have one of the most active jobs in the supply chain and logistics industry, but in an era of automation where do they fit in?

These essential staff are found at the forefront of the operation’s safety, security and productivity standards. In short, they are crucial to the smooth running of the business and ultimately whether or not the customer gets the correct parcel at the correct time.

However, the transport and logistics industry is constantly evolving. Unlocking better productivity means that order pickers don’t always have to carry packages all the time. Ergonomic conveyor belts, radio technology and augmented reality have long since found their way into warehouse storage systems.

Warehouse logistics is, therefore, at a crossroads of automation. Companies that focus on building smart logistics 4.0 are now faced with the dilemma of which available technologies they should choose.
What is industry 4.0?
Put simply, industry 4.0 is the fourth industrial revolution. Linked to ideas of IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) or smart manufacturing, industry 4.0 represents the next generation for the sector.

Industry 4.0 brings together existing physical production and operations with smart, new digital technology including big data and machine learning. Put this all together and it is poised to help manufacturing and supply chain management professionals to embrace a more holistic and interconnected ecosystem. The aforementioned smart logistics 4.0 is an offshoot of this concept.
The evolution of the picking process
Picking systems can be implemented technically in different ways. For a detailed look at what picking systems are available, read our previous blog.

The traditional way is that an employee is sent to fetch the goods from the shelf. That is why the system is also called “person-to-goods”. This system is characterised by the fact that the goods are made available statically. The order picker therefore goes to a shelf with a container and collects the goods.

The order picker has to know which articles, in which quantities, have to be taken from which packaging unit and put together for the shipment of goods. The picker also has to acknowledge the removal.

Most of the information is processed electronically. This once traditional path is now shaped by modern technologies. Great increases in efficiency in warehousing can be achieved, for example, with picking techniques such as pick-by-RFID (radio-frequency identification) or pick-by-light. More and more often, so-called AR (augmented reality) data glasses also support warehouse logistics, called pick-by-vision.

In short, the traditional picking system “person-to-goods” stipulates that an employee fetches the statically provided goods from the shelf.

Two transportation and logistics workers are moving a pallet of retail goods in a warehouse for stock taking or delivery purposes

What is the difference between person-to-goods and goods-to-person picking?Compared to “person-to-goods”, however, the more modern “goods-to-person” picking system means a further leap forward in terms of increased efficiency. Here it is the order picker who is in a fixed position. The goods are provided dynamically, i.e. they are moved to the order picker via a conveyor system. The optimization potential resulting from the reduction in travel distances is obvious. In addition, ergonomic workplaces can be designed with autonomous transport systems and mobile shelves.

A third solution is robot-assisted order picking. The varieties range from semi-automatic solutions such as picking robots that handle individual boxes or layers of boxes to fully automatic systems. The fully automated systems in particular impress with their high performance and low error rate.

And their development continues. For example, in Germany, the Fraunhofer Institute for Machine Tools and Forming Technology recently reported that the institute had developed a fully automated robot cell that pre-sorts car parts.

The question in the industry is whether or not these automatic order picking systems will replace warehouse workers.

Is fully automated order picking the future?Robot technology has grown so rapidly in recent times that it has developed into a market of its own.

However, the goods that mail order companies and parcel service providers deal with consist of items that differ from one another in terms of shape, size and weight. And it is precisely this diversity that pushes robots to their limits.

While research questions such as the automated transport of goods or the robot's navigation through the warehouse are considered to have been resolved, the situation is different in the areas of detection and gripping tasks.

So far, robots have not been able to compete with human flexibility in recognising and grasping. Robot controls that are capable of learning have simply not yet been implemented in this area.

Automated order picking systems such as shaft order pickers, for example, require that articles are sorted by type. Their strengths only unfold with uniform goods with a similar weight. They are therefore only used in highly complex production systems for a specifically defined range of products.
Why isn’t everyone using fully automated order picking?

In warehouse logistics and distribution, however, the trend is in the opposite direction. There are increasingly mixed shipments of goods in small packaging quantities and articles that differ greatly from one another.

Distribution systems for everyday goods that mail order companies and parcel service providers deal with therefore only use fully automated picking in individual cases, for example in the form of a sorting and distribution system for transport to a manual picking station.

The more modern “goods-to-person” picking system makes a leap forward in terms of increased efficiency by providing the goods dynamically via a conveyor system.
Accurate labelling is key
Regardless of manual or automated picking systems, accurate labelling is essential to reduce the cost of mis picking for warehouses.

Effective systems require legible barcode labelling to identify products that are to be picked and the locations where these products are kept. If these labels are easily damaged or not printed to a high quality to begin with it can wreak havoc with your warehouse picking operations, causing products to be misplaced and adding time to the already constrained order picking time limits.

Want to learn more? Read part two of this blog series to find out what the advantages and disadvantages of manual picking are and what the future holds for the warehouse worker? 

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