Automation: What’s an integrated system?

Highly-automated, complex systems are changing the meaning of systems integration

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One day last week, I finished writing a story about Musikhaus Thomann, which will be the cover story of the May issue of Modern. It’s a highly-automated facility that brings together four different picking processes in a multi-channel retail facility that replenishes Thomann’s music super store and serves about 4 million ecommerce customers across Europe.

The facility brings together four different picking processes:

Full cases are picked from a pallet at a goods-to-man work station at the unit load AS/RS …

Slow-moving items are picked from four goods-to-man work stations at a mini-load AS/RS ….

Fast-moving items are picked from totes in a light-directed flow rack ….

Over-sized items are picked from pallet rack in a conventional warehouse area.

The system is fast - filling an order in about 28 minutes. But what’s really interesting about the system, which was designed by TGW Systems, is that there is no accumulation conveyor or a buffer area to hold items until all the pieces of an order have been picked. Instead, the warehouse control system coordinates the start times of each of the different picking processes so that all of the items for an order arrive at the sorter about the same time, regardless of which area they are picked in or which technology is used.

Soon after I finished writing that story, I had a conversation about the state of automation with Kevin Ambrose, the CEO of Wynright. Ambrose was explaining how automated systems are changing today. “Historically, there have been silos of automation within the distribution center,” Ambrose said. “A client might have needed to speed up their picking area, and we’d put in a pick-to-light system and you’d have an island of automation.”

“Today,” he added, “we’re looking at this holistic approach. A client might have voice in one location, pick-to-light in another, some goods to person and some automated storage. You’re not just dropping in a technology. We’re using software to break down those silos so you have a truly integrated system.”

My first thought was: haven’t we always had integrated systems? Then it occurred to me that in the past, integration referred to mechanical integration. That meant the sorter and the conveyor worked together. In today’s emerging world of very complex order fulfillment systems, integration refers to operational integration – like the way the WCS at Musikhaus Thomann makes sure that all of the components of an order arrive at the sorter at the same time, even though they might be picked from different parts of a building utilizing vastly different picking technologies.
 
Although Thomann is not a Wynright customer, Ambrose said it is an example of what he was talking about. Another example is the Skechers facility we featured last December, which was a Wynright-designed project. Like Thomann, it is a highly-automated facility that brings together a variety of technologies and processes. The demand for these new, integrated systems, he added, is being driven by the demands of ecommerce.

“The challenge with ecommerce is to drive down the cycle time to something that is very quick,” Ambrose said. “To do that, you have to delineate the various zones of a facility, put in different technologies to handle different types of products and then synchronize the flow out of those various areas. It’s a big deal.”

In the past, he said, DCs would get the next day’s orders at night, create batches and then release pick waves. Yes, there might be some congestion now and then, but it wasn’t a big deal as long as it all came together on the shipping dock for a pickup at the end of the day. “You can’t do that in ecommerce because you don’t have your orders the night before,” Ambrose said. “And you don’t have miles of conveyor where you can buffer orders. It’s changing the mindset of how we operate facilities.”

And, it’s changing just what we mean when we use the term integration.


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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