An ongoing logistics labor shortage and a year of pandemic-related supply chain disruptions have left many retail and eCommerce businesses wishing for more automated eCommerce fulfillment. Extensive automation of fulfillment operations requires a significant upfront investment, making the concept intimidating for many growing online sellers. The truth is most fulfillment centers don’t need extensive automation to run a highly efficient operation.
A good fulfillment 3PL will have mastered the balance between labor and automation by employing low-level automation technologies that augment staff rather than replacing them. Hiring a third-party logistics (3PL) provider can also help circumvent any large expenditures in the area of logistics automation. But what level of automated or semi-automated technology should you expect your 3PL to have?
Finding a 3PL With the Right Fulfillment Automation Capabilities for You
Repetitive or menial tasks often lend themselves well to warehouse automation, such as constructing shipping cartons or labeling bags and boxes. Manual handling will better suit fulfillment processes that require more complex movement or decision-making, such as the process of actually identifying and picking individual inventory items from bins.
Automation requirements will vary between fulfillment operations based on multiple factors. To determine if your 3PL can handle your automated eCommerce fulfillment needs, consider:
- Volume: The right automation capabilities will allow your 3PL to handle high volumes consistently. If you’re fulfilling tens of thousands of orders daily, your 3PL should implement advanced automation right out of the gate. A smaller online seller may not need major automation until additional growth demands it.
- Labor: Automation streamlines fulfillment processes, lowers the learning curve during training, minimizes the impact of employee turnover, and offers real-time insights into order processing to facilitate better labor planning. There will be a tipping point where it becomes more cost-effective for your 3PL to augment and free up existing staff with automated fulfillment solutions. Use a 3PL with clients on both sides of this tipping point to ensure they will recognize the ideal time to begin implementing more sophisticated fulfillment automation capabilities.
- Scalability. Small, growing eCommerce businesses should choose a partner that can start with minimal automation, then add automated capabilities as growth demands. While not every order fulfillment center needs automated eCommerce fulfillment from the start, it’s crucial to choose a provider capable of implementing it when the time comes.
Types of Warehouse Automation Technology
If you’ve determined your 3PL should have some level of logistics automation, the next step involves understanding the available solutions to help you identify the technologies your provider may use. Due to the variable nature of many common warehousing tasks, most 3PLs rely on technologies that optimize human associates while taking repeatable tasks off of their hands.
Some of the most popular low-level automation technologies include:
Using order fulfillment associates to erect shipping boxes doesn’t make much sense in high-volume fulfillment operations. To handle this highly repeatable task, 3PLs often employ automatic box erectors to reduce labor costs and free up associates for more complex tasks. For example, a cleaning products manufacturer reduced the labor cost per box by 70% and increased box assembly throughput from three to 15 boxes per minute.
Automated Taping Machines
In medium- and high-volume fulfillment environments, an automated box taping machine can free up warehouse associates while reducing tape waste. In combination with box erectors, tape machines offer significant efficiency gains for eCommerce fulfillment.
Applying labels to parcels is tedious and repetitive, making it an ideal area for automation. Automated labeling improves throughput for high-volume order fulfillment over manually printing and sticking a label on every parcel. This capability is especially useful when fulfilling large bursts of orders, such as subscription runs.
Some popular solutions for more advanced automated pick and pack fulfillment include:
The pick-to-light process is easy to learn. An order fulfillment associate scans a barcode on the shipping carton and receives a storage container number. A notification light on the container lights up to help the associate find the container quickly. An LED display on the storage container tells the picker how many items to pick. Once items have been picked and packed, the associate deactivates the light on the storage container to let the system know the picking operation is complete. This technology reduces picking errors while improving picker efficiency.
Voice picking technology uses an automated voice via a headset to direct the associate to the appropriate inventory bin, allowing order fulfillment associates to keep their hands free. When they reach the storage container, the associate talks into the headset to verify they have the right bin. The system gives the associate the pick quantity, and the picker grabs the items and places them in a bin before moving to the next pick. Voice picking enables order fulfillment associates to handle high volumes of complex orders accurately.
Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and Robots
Due to labor shortages and the pandemic, some warehouses have begun to explore AGVs for moving inventory around the facility. AGVs come in numerous forms, including automated carts that move bins and automated forklifts that move pallets. Co-bots have also gained popularity for their ability to work in tandem with order fulfillment associates by bringing inventory bins from warehouse shelves to a pick-and-pack station. 3PLs will undoubtedly explore these technologies more in the future as they become more feasible and affordable.
No matter what level of automated eCommerce fulfillment you need from your 3PL, Amware Fulfillment can help. We have implemented efficient automated processes that reduce labor costs and accurately manage inventory across our national fulfillment center network. To discuss our logistics automation capabilities and how we can leverage technology to support order fulfillment for your business, please contact us today.