Supply Chain Council of European Union |

Boost order processing by reducing worker travel

When your online business accelerates, that typically means more piece picking work, which can consume considerable labor resources and more walking and lifting by labor associates if picking is done with conventional, static shelving and manual order picking. For Vihamij, a wholesaler of building materials based in the Netherlands, a more dynamic and ergonomic order picking approach was needed at its business as volume of online orders increased.

Vihamij is a technical wholesale company providing next-day delivery of building materials to direct customers or to its 37 stores across the country. The company’s central warehouse in Arnhem stocks approximately 10,000 different items. Many of these goods are relatively smaller items such as fasteners or other parts and materials.

As Vihamij’s business increased, its warehouse operation found what used to be peak order levels became more like the normal workload, making it challenging for operations to keep pace with the previous process. Management knew it needed to find a way to increase order processing significantly.

They were after a solution that could cut down on the long travel times for personnel to pick goods manually, reduce the number of personnel needed in the manual order picking process, and that could consolidate storage locations for easy and fast access.

Under the company’s previous static storage and manual order picking approach, six to seven associates were needed to pick orders on most days. The automated solution now in place is based on automated storage and retrieval system (AS/RS) technology and software (Kardex Remstar). A customized solution based on standard elements was formulated by Vihamij and the supplier. It consists of three LR 35 Vertical Buffer Modules (VBMs) each featuring a turntable and LED pointer.

As storage space had to be significantly increased to condense items from different storage locations in one place, the roof of the warehouse was extended to install units of maximum height, 12 meters each in height. In front of the units, 30 picking bins on put locations with put-to-light technology were installed. The batch picking process is controlled by Power Pick Global software and a fixed color is assigned to each unit.

According to Jasper Mulder, a project member with Vihamij who helped devise the new solution, the AS/RS approach does away with the extensive walking to pick locations under the previous methods, while the dynamic, software-driven storage is highly accurate. Like other AS/RS solutions, the vertical buffer modules have operators do most of the order picking at workstations where the automation presents items at a consistent, ergonomic height, rather than walking long distances and reaching for items on shelves.

“[Before] we did not have a dynamic solution but used shelf racks instead,” says Mulder. “The area required six people for order processing. We had to walk long distances to pick the articles. Many picking errors occurred, and many products were in the wrong locations. The benefits of this new solution are faster processes and less walking distance, more efficiency, and fewer picking errors.”

To prevent picking and putting errors, the display indicates the same color as on the put-to-light displays. This further reduces travel times. Where six or sometimes seven operators were used before under the more manual approach, the new solution needs only one picker and one person preparing orders. First, 1,000 to 1,500 order lines are picked, then replenishment follows, finally 50 to 100 customer orders are fulfilled, in total an average 300 order lines per hour per person.

With the automated, dense storage and the goods-to-person nature of the system, the staffing needs for picking of smaller items have been reduced from six people to two and half. Finally, with the modular nature of the new system, it can be expanded to meet future growth and additional throughput requirements by adding more modules and light-enabled workstations.

About the Author

Roberto Michel

Roberto Michel, senior editor for Modern, has covered manufacturing and supply chain management trends since 1996, mainly as a former staff editor and former contributor at Manufacturing Business Technology. He has been a contributor to Modern since 2004. He has worked on numerous show dailies, including at ProMat, the North American Material Handling Logistics show, and National Manufacturing Week. You can reach him at: [email protected]

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