The need for speed

12 December 2012

High picking speed offers obvious advantages to companies seeking supply chain supremacy. Simon Duddy hears how Knapp is keeping its pedal to the metal.

High picking speed offers obvious advantages to companies seeking supply chain supremacy. Simon Duddy hears how Knapp is keeping its pedal to the metal.

Robots are more typically deployed in production environments, it's rare for robots to deal with item picking. Yet, the latest speed machine being developed by Knapp for picking is the Pick-it-Easy robot. Judging by the early demonstration I saw at the company's HQ in Austria during its MOVE visitor event, it's a flyer.

The system combines a robot with a multi-axis picking head with an image recognition system. It detects the easiest item to pick among randomly oriented articles in a tote, based on the amount of accessible surface area. The robot selects the most appropriate gripper for the item to be picked, which is attached magnetically to the head during a very fast gripper change.

Knapp's new CEO Gerald Hofer expcects the first installations to be in the pharmaceutical arena, where bursts of high speed picking are needed to meet overnight deliveries, but he also sees applications in eCommerce, where again bursts intense picking are typical in the evenings after an order window closes.

"Online retail orders are generally single piece. These single piece orders mean a greater picking workload in the warehouse.

It is easier to pick one batch of 20, than 20 singles. A lot of warehouses have the capacity for the storage totes but do not have the picking capacity. Picking processes are mainly manual at the moment, but if more can be automated and speed and accuracy boosted, it is very exciting for etailers." Picking robot technology does have its limitations though, it is not ideal for groceries as there are too many variables when it comes to single items, with soft food additionally requiring gentle handling.

Hofer explains: "We do pick outer boxes for food, but in the short term, we won't look into the tote. For online grocery shopping presentation is key, you've got to be careful about handling and loading into boxes. The human being is still most effective at this." Having built its success and global presence on projects for the pharmaceutical supply chain, it is retail that is now the fastest-growing sector for Knapp in the UK, as shown by the end users present at the MOVE event - a veritable who's who of retail giants grappling with multichannel challenges.

However, speed is far from the only issue. The B2C revolution is also driving much lower tolerance of error. The demand of the retail industry to focus on B2C, says Hofer, has translated into a need for higher flexibility and accuracy in logistics. B2C makes the order well much less predictable, and the pick window is getting ever smaller as cut-off deadlines become later. Therefore, warehouse performance becomes absolutely key to success. Knapp is using its experience and expertise acquired in the pharma supply chain to improve accuracy and throughput in the retail sector.

"There are issues driven by B2C, it is very demanding, time is short between order and delivery. If you advertise online you never know how people will react, it can be huge or small orders. It means we need to have all the articles available in the same way, in one block.

"There is a clear focus on quality, so zero-defect is a need from our customers.

The end customer wants the right product at the right time, in the right condition or they go elsewhere. This is driving our concept of the zero defect warehouse, which is also informed by our experience in the pharmaceutical sector," says Hofer.

The application of its Vision technology of image recognition and augmented reality to existing and new solutions, helps Knapp improve picking accuracy in its aim of a 'Zero Defect Warehouse'.