Home > High-speed goods-to-person picking solutions optimise flexibility and throughput: by Jim McMahon

High-speed goods-to-person picking solutions optimise flexibility and throughput: by Jim McMahon


OPEX Material Handling introduces the next generation of high-speed goods-to-person picking solutions designed to optimise flexibility and throughput in high volume distribution centres. 

Most automated goods-to-person picking systems deliver high pick rates, improve order accuracy and dense storage capacity, which are all critical factors when assessing automated single-piece picking solutions. 

However, evolving distribution requirements create fresh challenges for distribution executives, who increasingly require more flexibility, better uptime reliability and improved energy efficiency in these systems. 

This need has prompted a new generation of automated goods-to-person picking solutions such as Perfect Pick from OPEX Corporation, with its patented iBOT technology, which has set a new standard for ultra-efficient high-speed piece picking in high-volume distribution centres. 

A growing logistics challenge for many executives running high-throughput distribution centres lies in the need to prepare small-quantity, mixed-SKU orders to ship and arrive on schedule with short delivery times. Fuelled by shifting demographics, niche retailing, new channel formats such as mobile devices, faster product introductions and shorter product lifecycles, small-quantity, multiple-SKU orders are becoming increasingly difficult to handle with conventional manual and automated storage and pick systems. 

Sometimes comprising of thousands or tens-of-thousands of different SKUs and in an assortment of packaging styles, a DC’s inventory needs to be stored, picked and shipped with a very high level of efficiency to optimise labour usage and minimise operational costs. 

Much of the recent investment in automation for warehouses and distribution centres has been driven by a desire to improve single-piece order picking processes. For high-volume pick order lines, highly automated robotic- and shuttle-based systems provide efficient goods-to-person solutions, achieving performance levels of many hundreds of order lines per hour with precision accuracy, while operating in highly condensed space parameters. 

New generation of high-throughput, goods-to-person picking

A new generation of high-throughput picking solutions has emerged, delivering an improved level of flexibility, system uptime reliability and energy efficiency. Perfect Pick, recently introduced by the Material Handling division of OPEX Corporation, a world leader in high-speed automated systems for sortation of small packages, mail and documents is based on the company’s highly successful, patented Mail Matrix technology. 

Appearing similar to other automated goods-to-person systems, Perfect Pick is a highly scalable, high-density tote racking structure serviced by delivery vehicles that extract totes from storage locations and present them to pick stations for order fulfilment. However, a closer view demonstrates that Perfect Pick is quite different from any other automated goods-to-person option, and operates at a higher level of throughput performance and system efficiency. 

One-Touch Throughput

One-Touch Throughput is a unique piece-picking solution engineered to eliminate the complexity associated with every other goods-to-person technology. Perfect Pick is a double-ended picking solution that requires no elevators, conveyors or transfers, and delivers the tote directly from the rack location to the picking station, without the tote leaving the delivery vehicle. 

Use of transfers, lifts and conveyors adds complexity to any automated goods-to-person system, which increases the possibility of slow-downs and downtime. Simplicity of process operation is fundamental to minimising breakdowns, wear and maintenance requirements, which ultimately means a higher probability of system uptime, and subsequent increased throughput with lower operating costs. The design of Perfect Pick demonstrates this objective by achieving an industry-leading throughput rate of up to 1,000 picking cycles (picking and putting) per hour without the need for elevators, conveyors or transfers.

iBOTs access 100% of inventory within aisles

Central to the performance capability of Perfect Pick is its patented iBOT delivery technology. iBOTs are intelligent, wireless vehicles that store and retrieve totes within the system’s racking structure. 

A key feature of the system is the capability of each iBOT to access 100 percent of inventory in the aisle, unlike conventional shuttle-based goods-to-person systems where each individual shuttle is held captive to a specific row, inhibiting that shuttle’s full access to all SKU locations within the aisle. 

iBOTs are free to roam horizontally or vertically throughout the aisle to reach designated SKU/tote locations and pick stations. Perfect Pick’s traffic control software, operating in real-time with microspeed response, monitors the position of all iBOTs and directs their movements throughout the system for maximum accuracy and efficiency. 

The iBOTs operate on four-wheel-drive, geared-engagement movement, which creates a positive connection to better facilitate faster acceleration and deceleration throughout the system. A simple bar-extractor utility is used to engage, retrieve and replace totes. Each iBOT has a load capacity of 60 pounds.

When an iBOT carrying a tote is received at a pick station, the iBOT tilts for ergonomic positioning to reduce stretching or lifting on the part of the operator. Text and visual prompts on picking monitors, supported by pick-to-light, direct the operator to choose the required item(s) from the tote, and indicate where to place them into the appropriate order boxes. When the operator indicates the final pick is complete, the software releases the current iBOT and tote, which then returns the tote to its location in the racking structure. The next iBOT/tote is immediately placed into position for the next picking sequence.

The flexible iBOTs provide the ability to pick and replenish simultaneously, and on the fly, as needed. Depending on SKU counts, throughput volume requirements and number of pick stations, up to 16 iBOTs could be deployed per aisle, with each iBOT having access to 100 percent of the aisle inventory. 

Energy efficiency

The importance of energy efficiency increases as energy costs continue to escalate and distribution operations are increasingly being pressured to lower operating costs without losing productivity. All operational parts within an automated pick system utilise energy. Simplicity of process operation in automated picking is therefore key to reducing energy usage. 

The Perfect Pick system is designed without the use of lifts, transfers or internal conveyors, and does not require the added energy draw from such components to provide throughput. The energy required to power vehicles that are moving totes throughout an automated goods-to-person system represents the bulk of the energy consumed. 

More energy efficient high-speed pick systems are moving to ultra-capacitors, which unlike batteries, store energy electrostatically. Perfect Pick is one system that utilises ultra-capacitors to power its iBOTs. The iBOTs are equipped with energy recuperation modules that utilise the onboard ultra-capacitors to recapture energy during normal operation of deceleration and descent. 

System scalability 

When assessing a goods-to-person system, distribution executives need to keenly consider expanding SKU counts, fluctuations in throughput volume of existing SKUs, and potential reduction of SKUs counts. Seasonal influences, and the rise and fall of the popularity of items offered on the Internet necessitate the need for highly flexible scalability in a goods-to-person automated system. 

A key capability of the Perfect Pick solution is that it provides exceptional flexibility in system scalability, and can be adapted and expanded as needed. The system can easily be extended or contracted, if future needs warrant. A single aisle can be easily expanded by adding modules. Additional aisles and picking stations can be seamlessly integrated into the operation. 

An exceptionally unique aspect of this system, from a scalability perspective, is its ability to quickly and easily increase or decrease the number of iBOTs to adapt to changes in throughput. Perfect Pick allows from 1 to 16 iBOTs to be operating within an aisle at any given time to accommodate throughput requirements. 

New benchmark for throughput efficiency

With the emergence of new-generation, high-speed goods-to-person picking technology, as exemplified in Perfect Pick, a new level of flexibility, better uptime reliability and improved energy efficiency can now be achieved above and beyond the capabilities of conventional goods-to-person pick systems. Fast, efficient and accurate delivery is one of the strongest competitive advantages in any market, and super-streamlined, goods-to-person piece-picking provides a critical foundation for achieving this objective.

These new systems enable a truly optimised capability for high-throughput DCs that handle a high volume of small-order picking. This technology is destined to set a new benchmark for improving the efficiency within these distribution operations.

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