Automation: Viastore enters the robotic piece-picking space
How do you get into the piece picking business if you’re better known for pallet and case handling?
“We don’t get as many piece picking inquiries as we would like because we’re known as a pallet and carton picking company,” says Bill Ostermeyer, viastore’s vice president of sales. “Robotics is the next emerging frontier in the warehouse, and our CEO feels this is a niche where we can differentiate ourselves by offering something different from other solutions in the market.”
Viastore isn’t the only automation supplier investing in robotic piece picking. SSI Schaefer displayed a robotic piece picking solution at ProMat this year. Schaefer has at least one customer up and running on the system in Brazil. Axium, a Canadian provider of robotic picking solutions, has implemented a piece-picking solution that picks cigarette cartons for a 3PL. Still, most of the solutions on the market are focused on building mixed SKU pallets.
According to Ostermeyer, viastore is taking a different approach to piece picking than other solutions. “The other solutions we have seen operate much like an A-frame: the robot picks the pieces to the carton and then someone at a packing station shuffles those items around to make the best use of the space,” Ostermeyer says.
Viastore is using vision and mapping technology to place the individual items into the carton in an intelligent way, much like a robotic carton picking solution builds efficient pallets. “We know what items are in the donor tote that comes from the storage module,” says Ostermeyer. “Our software can then figure out the best way to position the pick into the shipping box so that it doesn’t have to be handled again downstream.”
Viastore is targeting grocery chains, drug stores and other retailers that sell products in rectangular or square shapes of varying heights and weights. “Down the road, we’ll look at products in bags, but that’s a future technology,” Ostermeyer says.
What is the right application? Ostermeyer envisions this as a retrofit opportunity in two- or three-shift environments where pickers are still picking from flow racks with RF, pick-to-light or voice. “Our range is 460 to 600 picks per hour,” Ostermeyer says. “If you have already invested in a goods to person picking station, this is probably a hard sell.”
I asked Ostermeyer if viastore has anyone up and running. “Customers are asking us about robotics,” he says. “But this is new. We’re looking for a Beta site now.”