The Advancement of DC Fulfillment Technologies

Optimizing the Present and Future States of DC Operations With AS/RS, Robotics and Software

The transition to advanced automation is well underway in distribution and fulfillment (D&F) operations. Within the four walls of distribution centers (DCs), traditional labor-intensive process and material handling strategies are being replaced by more automated alternatives. Retail leaders are beginning to automate and upgrade specific aspects of their DC operations that are bowing under the weight of e-commerce pressures.

Retailers at the forefront of this transition are driven by a desire to mitigate risks to profitability and business continuity by:

  • Reducing the dependency on labor
  • Increasing throughput rates to meet service level agreements (SLAs)
  • Enabling the flexibility to adapt to peak seasonal fulfillment demands
  • Keeping pace with year-over-year growth forecasts

New automation investments are focused on achieving strategic supply chain advantages in critical picking, inventory storage and retrieval processes — where peak labor efficiencies are no match for escalating e-commerce fulfillment complexities and SKU proliferation. As throughput levels rise, delivery windows shrink and labor becomes more unpredictable, retailers will find it more difficult to sustain productivity and grow profit margins.

At the same time, emerging advanced automation solutions with integrated software offerings continue to improve, presenting operators with attractive and attainable returns on investment (ROI).

Progress Continues Along Key Functional Areas

High-speed sortation equipment still plays an essential role in large DCs with high throughput levels, high-level order volumes, and associated shipping and receiving requirements. But while the prospect of unbolting traditional sortation and conveyor equipment is still largely unfeasible, integrated automation systems offer opportunities to upgrade the core of many DC operations: picking, inventory storage and order fulfillment orchestration.

Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS)

AS/RS can be deployed within existing DCs to maximize throughput and improve receiving, order consolidation and shipping efficiencies. These flexible solutions offer higher storage densities within reduced operational footprints and the flexibility to adapt to a variety of configurations.

High-speed AS/RS shuttle systems are ideally suited for replacing manual picking in high-volume operations. The modular design of racking and storage frameworks enable the addition of new levels and aisles to accommodate future growth in storage demand. Shuttle systems are typically designed with goods-to-person (GTP) and goods-to-robot (GTR) configurations to eliminate picking travel times and allow fewer labor resources to be more productive.

When full pallets are required for wholesale distribution, AS/RS unit load systems rely on one crane per aisle to pull pallets from storage racks and stage them for truck loading.

Robotics Integration

The increased integration of robotics is also helping DC managers alleviate growing e-commerce fulfillment pressures. Robotics strategies are focused on replacing undesirable, unsafe and repetitive manual tasks to free up available labor resources for more thoughtful, high-value roles. And in many cases, retailers are turning to robotics to drive productivity levels beyond human capabilities.

While the vision of a fully autonomous robotic fulfillment operation is far from being realized, recent advancements in robotics are helping to transform a multitude of critical workflows, processes and applications:

These flexible robotic options can be adapted to benefit DC operations in a variety of ways:

  • They can be activated or deactivated as needed to supplement manual resources and flex for peak seasons.
  • They can be quickly reprogrammed for new routes and tasks.
  • They can be orchestrated into a variety of automated workflows with a modern warehouse execution system, such as Honeywell Intelligrated’s Momentum™ WES.

In addition, modern robotics solutions operate using universal control platforms — such as the Honeywell Universal Robotics Controller (HURC) — allowing them to continually adapt to changing DC conditions via robot-to-robot, machine-learning technologies.

Smart Software and Simulation

As D&F operations become more automated and complex in order to keep pace with demand, the integration of advanced warehouse automation software is playing an increasingly important role. Historically speaking, warehouse software was designed to serve very specific functions, which ultimately has added to DC operational complexities. These problems can typically be traced to the presence of multiple software vendors for various automation systems and robotics platforms, which can result in disconnected islands of automation and a continual cycle of obsolescence and upgrade challenges.

Often, this traditional, multi-vendor approach to software makes full DC fulfillment system orchestration next to impossible. Today, retailers and DC operators need to rethink their software strategies and deploy smart warehouse automation software platforms designed to reduce complexities by:

  • Unifying disparate automation systems
  • Orchestrating all automation systems for full warehouse execution
  • Simplifying software support and upgrade management

Modern warehouse automation software like Momentum is designed to provide a single, unified platform for enabling advanced automation in complex DC environments. Momentum gives DC managers the tools to:

  • Leverage operational data for workflow optimization and business insights
  • Apply machine learning for intelligent decision-making
  • Align order release and processing with customer SLAs and priorities
  • Maximize AS/RS storage and inventory availability
  • Ensure labor productivity and utilization
  • Orchestrate advanced AS/RS and robotics into DC workflows

WES systems are even beginning to assume upstream, inbound warehouse management system (WMS) processes and may potentially eliminate the need for separate WMS and WES systems.

Begin your Transition

Honeywell Intelligrated is providing the advanced technologies and integrated software to help retailers transition from traditional fulfillment workflows to fully integrated automation strategies. We’re leveraging multiple AS/RS solutions, state-of-the art robotics and our Momentum warehouse automation software to create robust, scalable and supportable technological infrastructures that lay a strong foundation for continuous growth.

Powered by a unified approach to software and advanced data science techniques, these tools can provide complete automation system orchestration while minimizing integration complexities. With decades of material handling industry expertise, we take a consultative approach to develop automation solutions that help forward-thinking companies solve their biggest fulfillment challenges and achieve rapid returns on their investments.

Wherever you are on the continuum of automation, we can help you achieve robust fulfillment capabilities today and accelerate your progress toward an ever-more automated future.

Simulate What's Next

Among the cutting-edge features of modern WES software platforms include the capabilities to deliver extremely accurate projections of advanced automation and system performances — before, during and after implementation — with simulation, emulation and digital twin models.

Simulation benefits include the abilities to:

  • Evaluate full system and individual robotic cell prototypes
  • Test automation system interdependencies
  • Validate and refine operations to improve layout and product flow
  • Identify where AS/RS and robots will provide the greatest ROI
  • Create a fully functional digital twin of a live fulfillment operation:
    • Enable scenario-based testing and response planning
    • Save time and money during the physical commissioning stage

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