Light-directed activities enter the third generation

The first generation of light systems sought to improve accuracy; the second generation enhanced speed; and we’re now entering the third, which is all about efficiency.

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Widely used for fulfillment since the early 1980s, the pick-to-light market was recently considered mature before software, hardware and industry developments opened a frontier of new opportunities. The broadening umbrella of light-directed activities now includes pick-to-light, put-to-light, put walls, picking carts, hybrid voice/light systems, mobile and rapidly reconfigurable solutions.

Real-time communication is the key to light-enabled systems, says Ron Adams, senior vice president of software and controls solutions for Wynright. “The back-and-forth data flow and visibility into labor standards and order management provide the main return on these projects,” he says. “Users who were making decisions based on a gut feeling can now make informed decisions.”

Light systems are most commonly used in picking large volumes of small-sized products, broken cases or fast-moving items. Lights have proven valuable in high-speed piece pick operations with a very high SKU density in the forward pick area, but they also have applications in full case pick and pallet picking. Chris Castaldi, director of business development at W&H Systems, says “if you find that 20% of your products or SKUs require 80% of the picking labor, a pick-to-light system would improve your productivity and accuracy.”

The next generation arrives
Castaldi says the first generation of light systems sought to improve accuracy; the second generation enhanced speed; and we’re now entering the third, which is about efficiency.

Joe Pelej, marketing manager for Lightning Pick Technologies, a division of Matthews Fulfillment Systems, agrees. He describes a customer with a legacy pick-to-light system that had been doing classic pick-and-pass zone picking with a team-based approach. The company used to build master packs to send to another DC that broke them out and sent orders to individual customers, Pelej recalls. The company’s business model changed, and it decided to do the direct-to-customer orders in the pick-to-light area. “Only now they can switch on the fly from zone picking to batch or cluster picking, whatever makes sense from day to day,” he says. “The same system can support different techniques and methodologies, and the ability to be able to make that changeover in minutes is pretty huge.”

These capabilities are rooted in software, which can now process much more than binary inputs. But, as with any information system, a company coming from low visibility to high visibility should be prepared for some powerful insight. “They might be working off engineered labor standards (ELS) that are way off base,” says Eric Cameron, vice president of sales for Bastian Software Solutions. “Whether in manufacturing or order fulfillment processes, a light-enabled operation might find a bottleneck they didn’t know they had.”

It’s also a question of what is happening downstream of the lights. “Lights, voice, what have you, is just one part of an overall fulfillment process,” Cameron says. “If it’s feeding a sortation system, that plays into the solution design. Does it feed into a print-and-apply solution where you might be able to put full cases on the line and use scanning and print and apply for outbound shipments? Are there any value-added services you have to do during the pick? All those little nuances lead to the right solution.”

Cameron cautions against shortcuts. Before a company can know if lights or any other solution is right for its operations, it needs to know where it is today and establish some kind of baseline. “Many don’t know their productivity, pick accuracy or lines per hour,” he says. “Then a prospective supplier says a system costing so many thousands of dollars will provide a certain ROI. How could they know?”

Illuminating productivity
As middleware between the warehouse management system (WMS) and picking operations, light software can collect details in ways the WMS might not. For instance, a picker might trigger replenishment when a broken-case SKU is below 10 pieces. “The WMS knows a case of 20 was scanned into that location, but doesn’t necessarily care what has happened since,” Pelej says. “Light software can trigger corrective actions based on the availability of more information in real time.”

Whether using a few lighted bins or a blend of light-enabled processes, a user can gain visibility into the effectiveness of a picker, zone, facility or network. Pelej says the software does not simply collect this data but can use it to create work plans and balance workloads on the fly. “If one person picks 650 per hour, one picks 700 and another picks 750, the system can tell you how best to line these folks up at a station to optimize their performance,” he says. 

Workers can manipulate orders to see which have launched, completed or are accurate, but the system can also inform staffing levels, track progress against benchmarks and recommend adjustments. Without the ability to dynamically reassign labor, Castaldi says some managers might have staff superstars who are five times more effective than slower employees.

“That doesn’t happen with lights. You bring everyone up,” Castaldi says. “Too many people rely on constantly throwing labor at problems, and many find that twice the people don’t produce twice the throughput. Doing more with fewer people is about handling peaks with optimal labor, keeping labor busy in between, and rounding off the peaks and valleys.”

Wynright’s Adams described a customer that, because of increased visibility into the engineered labor standards it already had in place, implemented something it calls “self-directed work” in pick-to-light selection modules. “Instead of a supervisor telling selectors to move from one area of the module to another, they put up an informative screen and employees assign themselves,” he says. “Having an associate direct his or her own work is a huge change in the conventional atmosphere of a warehouse.”

Lights can contribute to some very sophisticated labor modeling that takes orders for the day, plugs the volume into the software and determines how many pickers will be needed that day. Such users might redeploy workers, offer time off or end a shift early.

“The point is: They have options,” Adams says. “Data from lights can lead directly to decisions about the schedule for loading outbound trailers, for instance. Can I get more loads on a truck faster? Can I turn doors faster? Can I stop working on Sunday? Some clients have eliminated shifts, a day, or have increased productivity to the point they can shut down another facility.”

By moving picking from a “needle in a haystack” exercise into something more akin to “Whac-A-Mole,” lights can also shorten training times as labor scales up and down. Another of Adams’ clients was able to bring in temporary associates one week ahead of time to ramp up for Black Friday, as opposed to six weeks for the same training before the new light system.

Hardware gets easier
Software improvements have rapidly outpaced hardware enhancements in recent years, but those advances have freed up hardware from its past trappings. “Years ago, when you implemented a light system, it was very rigid and static,” says Bastian’s Cameron. “Now dynamic zoning can enable more or fewer operators to work in the same area.”

For instance, in the past, a worker’s zone would be clearly defined. If his neighbor was working hard while he only received a few odd picks, so be it. Now, both can share a zone, perhaps with one chasing blue lights and the other chasing yellow. Multi-function light panels might also have a quantity indicator and could be placed as a central display at the junction of four pallet locations, for example.

Light system maintenance has also become significantly less costly, according to Pelej. “With the light bars all strung together, it used to be a Christmas tree effect where if one light was down the line was down,” he says. “Now the system works around an individual light, which the customers can sometimes replace on their own in less than 5 minutes from failure to fix.”

Castaldi suggests the creative use of fixed lights in neighboring processes can provide compound benefits. One footwear company sorts small orders by light-picking into a Gaylord before sorting from the Gaylord to light-enabled put walls. As soon as an order is complete, an associate on the back side of the wall can pull it out and ship it. “It has been scanned, packed and shipped almost in one step,” Castaldi says. “Before, each person would go out to pick a single order. Now they do the same work with seven people instead of 30.”

If stationary, hard-wired lights don’t make sense, mobile carts can bring light’s benefits out into the rest of a facility. Alternatively, the put wall can become mobile. Pelej describes a system using a multicolor light device affixed to a sled on a conveyor. Operators pick to light from shelving or flow rack, turn around and sort items into multiple orders on the sled.

Companies mentioned in this article
Bastian Solutions:
Lightning Pick Technologies, a division of Matthews Marking and Fulfillment Systems:
W&H Systems:
Wynright Corporation:

About the Author

Josh Bond, Senior Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.

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