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Single-piece picking challenge

15 June 2017

The growth in single-piece picking is driving increasing interest in automation. Craig Rollason, MD of KNAPP UK, outlines the latest trends.

Although online sales in May grew at their slowest rate for more than four years, according to statistics from the British Retail Consortium, growth in e-commerce is still the dominating factor in the UK retail landscape. Retailers, contract logistics providers and handling equipment suppliers increasingly have to tailor their operations and solutions to this new way of doing business.

Flexible capacity

E-com orders cost more to fulfil due to their greater requirement for single-item picking, compared with the more efficient batch picking needed to replenish retail stores. In omni-channel distribution centres, clients are very much focused on achieving flexibility, allowing them to balance capacity dynamically across the various sales channels. The challenge is how to pick and ship small e-com orders alongside full-case orders for wholesale or orders for store replenishment while achieving speed, accuracy and cost efficiency. Adding complexity to this task is the fact that the increasingly digital nature of marketing is resulting in more frequent promotions and greater spikes in demand. The pressure of these peaks is also compounded by later order cut-off times, which demand faster processing speeds through the warehouse.

Automate for speed and accuracy

Automation can help companies to meet these demands cost-effectively, although omni-channel DCs will usually require a combination of different types of automated handling equipment to manage the variety of SKUs or their different speeds. Of course, the narrow margins in e-commerce make picking accuracy of paramount importance in order to minimise costly returns. Manual or semi-automated picking processes can benefit from a variety of technologies aimed at improving accuracy – such as RF terminals, pick-by-voice systems, pick-to-light technology or image-recognition solutions that verify the items picked. 

Robotic fulfilment

Advances in robotic technology in recent years have meant a dramatic fall in the cost of robotic labour compared to human labour. Until recently, however, achieving reliability in robotic order picking seemed unachievable. Now the capabilities of the latest image-recognition systems and the dexterity of the latest robots mean that robotic picking is a viable option, both technically and economically. KNAPP’s Pick-it-Easy Robot, for example, won a Best Product award at the LogiMAT 2017 exhibition. It combines a six-axis articulated arm robot with a sophisticated image-recognition system that can detect the optimum item to pick among randomly oriented articles in a tote. The robot can use a range of different grippers that are switched at very high speed and attached magnetically. KNAPP’s KiSoft Vision image-recognition and processing technology enables the robot to analyse the picking task and sophisticated software calculates the optimum item to pick, the grip point and the picking movement. With robots equally able to function at induction points for sorters, overhead pockets or automated packaging systems, the potential for robotization of warehouses is vast. 


Another trend that we are seeing at the moment is an increasing number of clients wanting to integrate their returns – which they may previously have outsourced – within their own e-com or omni-channel warehouse, forming an end-to-end logistics facility. Many technological developments in automated logistics are making such integration easier. For example, KNAPP’s Pick-it-Easy workstations have been developed to allow operators to switch seamlessly between order fulfilment and returns handling.